a calm and quiet Lent

Ossessione

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

(Ps 131, ESV)

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the Church, a bride not a whore

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The Baptist had preached repentance, but it didn’t help. The Church has done the same for two thousand years, and it still doesn’t appear to have helped. It looks like other means are necessary to get people to listen. Shouldn’t we show others that we can do something really impressive? That’s a temptation that has pursued the Church throughout its history. Many times it’s been tempting for the Church to get politically involved or intervene in society in an effort to make an impression, create good will, gain sympathy, and win support.

–Bo Giertz, To Live With Christ

The Church is always tempted by the world to fall into the trap of relevance, felt needs, or some other buzzword to boost attendance and reach out to those around us. Much ink has been spilled and many dollars have changed hands in the name of church growth as pastors and congregations have chased after the next big thing to bring people in the door. Gun-infatuated Evangelicals in the Kentucky Southern Baptist Convention are even raffling off rifles as “a surefire way to get new people through church doors.” I wonder if the sermon title that evening was something to the tune of “Win a ‘piece’ from the Prince of Peace”?

Did we ever stop to think that being an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor 5.20) doesn’t necessitate that we behave like a perpetually-awkward teenage boy who hangs out with the older guys who tolerate him just as long as he’ll do their bidding?

If it isn’t efforts to boost numbers, Evangelicals also play the whore to the American political Right. We sell ourselves out, cheaply, in the name of conservative values, traditional family values, America’s God-fearing past, or some other righteous-sounding slogan to gain political clout and power in corrupt, worldly system. So much for rendering Caesar’s junk to Caesar.

Did it ever occur to us that being all things to all people (1 Cor 9.22) doesn’t require us to act like a desperate, ignored teenage girl who craves the affection of the jocks on the football team and thinks nothing is too slutty to gain their attention?

All these stunts are a sham, a gimmick, and a joke. They are the antithesis of everything the Church should be about. Seriously.

What did Christ give his Church to attract sinners? Word and Sacrament. Our real need is for forgiveness, so he gave us absolution in response to our confession. To satisfy the hunger of our souls, he gave us his body and blood as nourishment. It may appear that other means and methods are necessary to bring people to Christ, but this is a lie. We are the Bride of Christ. We ought to be seeking him instead of the approval of the world, because honestly, the latter only lasts as long as the girl is willing to put out or the boy is willing to do others’ dirty work.

Lord, have mercy.

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tangible sin, tangible forgiveness

bread and wine #1

The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me,
because the Lord has anointed Me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and freedom to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of our God’s vengeance;
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion;
to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
festive oil instead of mourning,
and splendid clothes instead of despair.
And they will be called righteous trees,
planted by the Lord
to glorify Him.

I greatly rejoice in the Lord,
I exult in my God;
for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation
and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness,
as a groom wears a turban
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth produces its growth,
and as a garden enables what is sown to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61.1-3, 10-11, HCSB)

What is this good news to the poor and brokenhearted; to the captives and imprisoned? Quit simply this: that God in Christ Jesus has clothed us ‘with the garments of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness.’

This is not our doing, for we continually fall short. This is not our work, for our deeds are routinely sinful. No, instead ‘the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up’ where before our lives and works were barren and self-centered. This is God’s work of grace, freely given us on behalf and as a result of the Beloved.

In Christ our unrighteousness and sin is covered by his righteous perfection. Those sins and scars, no less real, are no more revealed and no more remembered. We are spotless, without blemish–beloved of God our Father.

How can we grasp so great a gift? Solely by faith.

But these truths are intangible and hidden, whereas the effects of my sin are tangible and ever before me! Take comfort. In the sacrament of the altar, God has–again in his mercy–given us something tangible upon which our weak faith can cling.

Hear the words of absolution.
See, touch, smell, and taste the bread and the wine.

Let all of your senses experience the promise of forgiveness in the body and blood of Christ.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

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clothed in righteousness: thoughts on moral trauma

In Cold Blood..

War is messy. It is a mess of dirt, sweat, blood, gunpowder, rubble, tears, death, and destruction unparalleled by anything else that comes about by the brute force of humanity.

Those affected by war as either its practitioners or its victims get this mess on their bodies, their lives, and their souls. Shrapnel tears through them physically with just as much power as their experiences tear through them spiritually. Its scars on our bodies and souls seem permanent. Unchanging. Indelible. Those scars may heal in time, they may lighten–better but never quite forgotten, or they may remain raw and painful. The holds true for the physical scars as well as the spiritual ones.

It has become routine to treat those spiritual scars under the umbrella of PTSD instead of what they really are, moral wounds or moral trauma. Describing trauma as ‘moral’ necessitates a judgment of right or wrong, good or bad, righteous or sinful. The trouble is, our society with its steady prescription of moral relativism is unable to cope with the objectivity required by this sort of judgment. As a result, our warriors go untreated. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are subjected to an ineffective regime of cognitive behavior therapy that might treat some of the symptoms but fails to offer a cure. As necessary as these therapies are for coping with PTSD, they focus primarily on desensitization, not complete healing. No amount of Cognitive Processing Therapy can heal a wounded soul. No number of sessions of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing can restore a broken spirit. No dose of medication can regenerate a wounded conscious.

There is true healing for moral trauma. True restoration is possible. True hope is available.

Nearly 3,000 years ago the Prophet Isaiah declared:

I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness.
I am like a bridegroom in his wedding suit
or a bride with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61.10, NLT)

Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul wrote:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (Gal 3.26-27, NLT)

True healing is found in Christ Jesus. In baptism, we are clothed in his righteousness, which covers us in his perfection. In him are we dressed with the ‘clothing of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness’ which covers the stain, hurt, and mess of our own sin and experiences. All of them. Even war.

This prescription is not a ‘take two and call me in the morning’ sort of regimen. It is not an overnight cure free of struggle or pain. It is a long, hard road to recover from such wounds. But it is the path to true recovery and healing.

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on Jesus’ baptism

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This Sunday, January 12th, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. This event is recorded in all four Gospels, which clearly points to its importance. Matthew’s account is given as the reading for this Sunday:

Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

– Matthew 3.13-17 (NLT)

This passage is anything but unfamiliar to us, but what exactly does it mean? What is the point? Why was Jesus–the sinless Lamb of God–baptized? Whether one understands baptism as God’s work of grace (e.g., Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, etc.) or our own work of obedience (e.g. Baptists and other Evangelicals) makes no difference. That Jesus was baptized can be just plain confusing, especially if we get wrapped around the axle about Jesus’ baptism to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ or ‘carry out all that God requires.’

There are two facets to Jesus’ baptism for us to consider. First, he was baptized as an example for all of those who would follow him. Baptism is our visible entry to Christ’s Church. As Christ was baptized, so we also are to be baptized. As Luther pointed out:

Christ is baptized, not in order to be made righteous—for He is the Son of God and endowed with eternal righteousness so that we may be made righteous through Him—but as an example, so to speak, for us, in order that He may precede us and we may follow His example and also be baptized.

– LW 3:87

This is perhaps the more obvious reason Jesus was baptized, but it is not nearly the more important.

Jesus was also baptized not only to serve as our example, but to become one of us sinners. Clearly, Jesus did not become a sinner in actuality. He never sinned. But he became a sinner by association–in nearly every part of his life–beginning with his taking on humanity and ending with his death and resurrection. By descending into the waters of baptism, Jesus points out that he is like us, he is with us, he is us. Again, Luther:

He was entering into our stead, indeed, our person, that is, becoming a sinner for us, taking upon himself the sins which he had not committed, and wiping them out and drowning them in his holy baptism. And that he did this in accord with the will of God, the heavenly Father, who cast all our sins upon him that he might bear them and not only cleanse us from them through his baptism and make satisfaction for them on the Cross, but also clothe as in his holiness and adorn us with his innocence.

– LW 51:315

By becoming one of us, Jesus made possible what Luther called the ‘joyous exchange’–exchanging his righteousness for our ungodliness and vice versa. In his baptism, Christ takes on the sin of the world and drowns it in the waters–an act completed for us on the cross. And in return, instead of death and condemnation, which we deserve, we are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ.

This he did; he took the sin of the whole world upon himself; he became a curse for us, and thus redeemed from the curse all those who believe in him.

Let us joyously celebrate Christ’s baptism as we remember our own and take heart in the knowledge that in it, we are united with Christ and shall live forever. Amen.

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on silence

snowy meadow

After posting this quote from Bonhoeffer, I couldn’t keep it from running around in my mind:

We are so afraid of silence that we chase ourselves from one event to the next in order not to have to spend a moment alone with ourselves, in order not to have to look at ourselves in the mirror.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word

What was true in Bonhoeffer’s day is infinitely more true in our American society today. Walking around the office or on the street, it’s rare to spy someone who isn’t on the phone, listening to music, or talking to somebody else. At people’s houses I often notice they leave televisions on when no one is actively watching–my children are as guilty of this as anyone–leaving the TV on while doing something else. And when was the last time you drove anywhere without the radio in your vehicle?

We surround ourselves with noise, even noise just for noise’s sake.

We can’t stand silence, even for a few moments…much to our detriment.

As Bonhoeffer points out, silence often begets introspection–something we tend to avoid in our superstar-obsessed society that demands we always look and act perfect no matter how far this diverges from reality. Christians are no better than secular society here, unfortunately. Somewhere along the line even Evangelical culture became obsessed with putting on a veneer of perfection no matter our true condition. Jesus had a term for this sort of thing–’white-washed tombs.’ Looking at ourselves and our souls in the mirror is an idea we simply cannot stand, because such an exercise necessitates admitting our flaws, weaknesses, imperfections, and sin. Our culture–even our Christian subculture–will have nothing of the sort because we are consumed with showing our (apparent) perfection, (seeming) success, and (the facade) of never-ending happiness.

Silence also begets waiting–also something we dislike in our society. We wait for nothing, even though those things that are most truly satisfying are often gained through patient waiting. Waiting, especially a Christian form of waiting, can take many forms: prayer, fasting, and contemplation to name a few. As a rule, Evangelical Christians have a pretty poor track record of these sorts of disciplines. We dismiss them as ascetic, outmoded, or legalistic. Perhaps we commit an even worse foul and write them off as “Catholic” (or “Orthodox”) and then fail to give them a second thought.

Here’s a hard truth. Silence, and its subsequent introspection and waiting, forms an integral part of the biblical witness and nearly 2,000 years of Christian practice. As uncomfortable as this reality might be to our culture of the instantaneous, we are much the poorer for our neglect.

Create silence. Take fifteen minutes–or ten, or five, or even one if that’s all you can bear at first–and be silent. Be silent before the mirror of God’s law and your own introspection. Wait patiently for God. Use this time to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (Jas 4.8, ESV)

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exceptionalism and American Christianity’s love of war

American Christianity–especially American Evangelicalism–has a love affair with war, guns, ‘freedom,’ and the military. Christians in America are historically very supportive of our military, our various interventions around the globe, and all things pro-gun-related. This support is manifested in Evangelicals’ love for patriotic church services, their admiration and gratitude for those in the Armed Forces, their consistent support of hawkish political leaders, and their outspoken support of the NRA and other Second Amendment groups.

All this may sound great, but there’s a problem. The more I have traveled around the globe and interacted with Christians in other nations; however, the more I have consistently and sincerely been asked, “Why?”

Christians in other places around the world are not nearly so infatuated with war, guns, and violence (political or personal). In fact, many of them loathe such things and cannot fathom why American Christians believe and act like we do. They believe that war is antithetical to Christianity, that violence begets violence, and that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26.52, ESV). In short, their views are much the opposite of our own.

How can this be?

I think the answer lies more in the theology of American Exceptionalism than it does in the pages of Scripture. In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Puritan John Winthrop first proclaimed the notion that America was somehow different, unique, and under the special watch care of God. While still on the seas from England, he taught his fellow passengers:

God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, has so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission…

From this beginning, Winthrop went on to encourage his shipmates in ways they might practically take care of one another, provide for one another, and forgive one another that their great journey of faith might be a successful one. Their success was important, because the world was watching, just as Egypt was watching Moses and the Hebrews when they were taken out to the wilderness:

We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.

Winthrop’s idea of America as occupier of a special place in the heart and plan of God runs deep in the American DNA. Jesus’ phrase about the ‘city on a hill’ has been invoked by Presidents Wilson, Kennedy, Clinton, Reagan, Bush (43), and Obama as evidence of America’s uniqueness in the world. And what is popular in the secular realm of politics is even more strongly emphasized and believed in American Evangelical churches, where American biblical heritage and our direct blessing by God are routine talking points–especially in election years.

With this in mind, doesn’t it only make sense that American Christians would believe and act the way they do? If America is indeed specially blessed and endowed by God as rich and powerful, doesn’t that translate into enforcing our version of liberty and justice for all around the world? If America’s heritage has been enabled (dare I say guaranteed) by its indelible roots in faith, family, and guns (a la Duck Dynasty), doesn’t a faithful Christian family need that same American trinity? If America’s foreign policy is deeply influenced by Christian ethicist Richard Land and those of his ilk, who single-handedly redefined the Just War tradition to include pre-emptive wars, isn’t America’s warmongering heritage morally defensible?

No. No. No. And NO!

America is a great nation. There is nowhere I’d rather live. But we are far from perfect. American Christians, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s time to seriously rethink some things many of us take for granted as right, reasonable, and true. Our views on these things conflict with those of our brothers and sisters around the world. More than this, our views conflict with those taught by our Lord Jesus whom we claim to follow above all else.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

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the economics of Christ (link)

Dirty Money

justifiedandsinner has some remarkable thoughts on luxury, simplicity, and our idols to ring in the new year. They are hard words to read but ones we must nonetheless take to heart:

The Gospel that talks of our being freed from idolatry, as we are united with Christ, as we walk with Him.  As we put things into an eternal perspective and we don’t cling to that which can be destroyed, When we realize that freed from such economic idols, we can show love to those who are our neighbors, without evaluating the economic impact on us and our family. The gospel that exchanges false gods for a God who comes to us, setting aside His riches, because of the love He has for us, who were not part of His family, but now are.

Such a detachment isn’t easy, we like being comfortable, we enjoy our flat screens and cars, we like seeing the work of hands rewarded with accomplishments and being assured that everything will be there.   But now we are going back to valuing an idol more than a real God.  It’s hard for me, even as I write this, to not hear it speaking to me.  To find oneself detached from things, and freer to love and to care and to serve. Able to use the resources God gives us, for that which would being Him glory, as we live like Christ.  It doesn’t change our work ethic, in fact, knowing we can help others may drive us to work harder, sacrificing more as we see the eternal rewards of people coming to know God’s love. It is a higher calling a higher purpose, a reason to invest ourselves in, this detachment that frees us from idols, and helps us imitate Christ as we find ourselves putting others before ourselves.

I encourage you to read the rest here.

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duck dynasty and drones: a failure of American Christianity

drones_ducks

Two high-profile events events occurring within a week of one another demonstrate an utter lack of contemporary American Christianity’s ability to grasp the whole of scripture and get beyond the culture-war-focused, civic religion that passes for authentic faith is so many conservative American congregations.

Unless you live under a rock, you are well aware of the controversial comments Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made about homosexuality during a recent article for GQ magazine. He was subsequently suspended indefinitely (and potentially ‘un-suspended’ depending on what news you read). The ensuing cacophony from the left–about Robertson’s intolerance–and the right–about free speech and the left’s intolerance–has filled my news reader and my wife’s Facebook feed ever since. High-profile conservative Christians are supporting his stance for traditional values in the press. Lower-profile bloggers are echoing the same all over the blogosphere. No surprises.

My thoughts? I agree that homosexuality is sinful–you really have to do some scripture twisting to get around that. Robertson has an American right to say what he thinks about that subject or any other. Should he expect to be warmly welcomed by the masses or retained by a secular employer for saying such things? Of course not–the bible is pretty plain about that too. Why are Christians all up in arms over this? Isn’t this exactly the reaction you’d expect from a secular employer and secular media in a secular nation? If not, please explain.

A few days earlier, a US drone attack in Yemen mistook a wedding party for an al-Qaida convoy and killed 14-17 civilians while injuring almost two dozen more. These folks were all non-combatants whose lives were wrongly taken or forever affected by a US foreign policy that operates with questionable tactics and carries out military attacks in nations against whom we are not at war (see my dissertation on the subject here in case you’re not paying attention). What has been the reaction from the same very-vocal Christian masses about this event? Crickets. Nothing. Nada. Silence.

Tell me, fellow Christians, why is that? Isn’t the bible clear on its teaching about murder? Doesn’t this same sacred text that speaks against homosexuality as sinful devote a whole lot more space to issues of justice? Shouldn’t Christians be much more outraged by the death of nearly a dozen and a half people than the job prospects of one person in Louisiana? Are we so blinded by unquestioning patriotism that we fail to stand up for injustices committed by our own hands? Where is our reaction? Why the deafening stillness?

Perhaps it is our outrage over the former and shocking silence over the latter that has contributed to Christianity’s perceived irrelevance in contemporary society. Perhaps if we quit squawking ceaselessly about our token pet issues and took a strong stand against issues of greater importance, Christians might be taken a bit more seriously. Perhaps we should stop singing “Proud to be an American” in worship services and develop a faith that was rooted more firmly on Christ and not as myopic, self-centered, and blindly-nationalistic as much of our contemporary American faith.

Perhaps…no, not perhaps, with absolute certainty, Christ would be better served if we truly understood and cared about the whole of scripture and not routinely neglect matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Just my thoughts. Rant concluded.

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to the lowly, not the exalted

de profundis / the depths of sorrow

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety–that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

This single paragraph by Bonhoeffer contains so many deep truths about God, it requires reading slowly, thoughtfully, and more than once. In it, hope is born of the ashes of anguish; self-righteousness is destroyed; arrogance is dashed on the rocks of humility; and everything our culture trumpets about what we ought to be and whom we ought to honor is proven false.

Bonhoeffer’s words drip with the sweet truths of the Gospel. In the midst of our brokenness, God is for us. In the midst of our loneliness, God is with us. In the mist of our weakness, God is our strength. In the midst of our rejection, God loves us.

To the proud and self-exalted, these words are senseless. To those who ‘have it all together,’ such talk is foolishness. To the rest of us, however, these words are a balm to the soul.

Praise the Lord!
For he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and shield.
I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. (Ps 28.6-7, NLT)

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mysterious God

Lodge Hill

Part of the wonder of Advent is meditating on the mystery of our God…or perhaps I should say, our mysterious God. As much as the systematic theologians want to smooth out all the wrinkles of Scripture and theology to present us a God who is tidy, neatly-packaged, and predictable, God will have nothing of it. In reality, if we’re honest, Scripture is not so easily handled and God is not always so easily understood.

The whole revelation of the bible presents us with a God who makes a habit of acting quite differently than we might expect. God likes to choose the younger over the older, the unfortunate over the privileged, the poor over the wealthy, the unlearned over the scholar, the despised over the celebrity…again and again he does this. As Bonhoeffer points out:

God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.

Perhaps the ultimate theological curve ball God throws us is the incarnation, Christ’s taking on of humanity, deity becoming humanity. As if this weren’t enough of a theological problem, this whole business is compounded by God’s decision to be born in an out of the way village, not the cultural center of the Mediterranean. He comes as a son born to an unwed mother and lowly carpenter, not as royalty or celebrity. He is born among sleeping livestock, not in a palatial or even well-decorated nursery. God calls attention to this most incredible miracle by announcing it to shepherds, not to theologians or mega-church pastors or best-selling authors.

In other words, in the eyes of the world (and maybe quite a few of his own people) God gets it all wrong…again. Yet in actuality, in his own mysterious way, God of course gets everything exactly right. In Eugene Peterson’s words:

The wonder [of Christmas] keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.

Keep the wonder alive. Look for the unexpected. Revel in the mystery and glory of God.

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prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent (BoCP)

More Than Words

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer

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prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent (LSB)

Could Use A Little Paint

Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent, Lutheran Service Book

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advent: not for the satisfied

WaitingThose who are satisfied have nothing for which they must wait. Their needs are met. They lack nothing. They are fulfilled.

Advent has no place for the satisfied, because Advent is all about waiting.

Should we find ourselves satisfied with the status quo of our faith and the world, it is more than our observance of Advent that needs examination. We ought to step back and examine our very faith itself. After all, the faith that is pleasing to God is an unsatisfied faith. It is a faith that yearns to find completion.

God blesses you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
God blesses you who are hungry now,
for you will be satisfied.
God blesses you weep now,
for in due time you will laugh… 1

…and on the contrary…

What sorrow awaits you who are rich,
for you have your only happiness now.
What sorrow awaits you who are faith and prosperous now,
for a time of awful hunger awaits you.
What sorry awaits you who laugh now,
for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.
What sorry awaits you who are praised by the crowds,
for their ancestors also praised false prophets 2

Those who are blessed of God are those who are poor, hungry, and mournful. While we may find contentment in our physical circumstances (cf. Phil 4.11), we must never be satisfied with our spiritual condition. We must never be satisfied with the way things are in this world. We are waiting, expectantly I trust, for Christ’s return, the new heavens and new earth, and eternity in the tangible presence of God. Things are not as they should be right now. Things are not as they will ultimately be.

So we wait. Content with our physical condition but never content with our spiritual condition–always looking forward with anticipation to the realized blessings of Immanuel, God with us, at his return.

Advent can be celebrated only by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself toward us–the Holy One himself, God in the child in the manger. God is coming; the Lord Jesus is coming; Christmas is coming. Rejoice, O Christendom! 3

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  1. Lk 6.20-21, NLT 
  2. Lk 6.24-26, NLT 
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger 

waking up to God

it's that time of the year again

No matter where you live in the northern hemisphere, the routine of Autumn has set in, the weather is growing colder, and the days are growing shorter. The cycle of school is firmly in place. The hectic pace of our vocations in the midst of holidays makes causes many to put their noses to the proverbial grindstones and press forward to accomplish everything necessary before the workplace doldrums of Christmas and New Year’s weeks arrive. Even as we prepare for Christmas, many of us are so busy with self-imposed obligations that we give hardly more than a passing thought to spiritual things.

Advent won’t let us off so easy, however.

The season of Advent calls us to wake up and be aware of the presence of God in our lives and our world. 1

Instead of being consumed by the ever-increasing pace of contemporary life, we Christians are called–perhaps paradoxically–to slow down. Advent is a new beginning. It is a time to shake off the habitual rhythms of busyness and begin again a lifestyle of deliberate focus on Christ and our lives in him. This is more than a call to nostalgic simplicity of days gone by, it is a matter of spiritual life and death. For in our daily hustle and bustle, we tend to develop an unhealthy self-reliance

When [we think we can do things on our own] God becomes remote and even absent from our lives. We may go for days without any sense of God, without recourse to prayer, or without concern to hear God speak to us through his Word. 2

Such self-reliance becomes spiritually deadly in its slow, unnoticeable withdrawal from our source of life: our Triune God and the very means he has established to create, sustain, and nourish our faith, the Word and Sacrament.

Slow down. Pause. Reflect. Wonder. Listen. Re-connect. Wake up to the presence of God.

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  1. Diane Houdek, Advent with St. Francis 
  2. Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Time 

advent: the art of waiting

Pray and Watch

Advent is a season of expectant waiting. We are masters of anticipation–just look at the weeks of hype about ‘Black Friday’–but we are complete failures at waiting. In a society where everything happens immediately, we have regrettably forgotten how to wait.

Celebrating Advent means being able to wait. Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote those words 60 years ago. By the standards of many, 60 years seems like an eternity ago. We would consider it a given that those were much slower times than today, the sort of age that the elders among us look back fondly upon as ‘the good old days’ when the pace of life wasn’t nearly as hectic as now. If Bonhoeffer thought that people had forgotten how to wait in 1943, he would definitely be dizzied by the pace of today’s world.

Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting–that is, of hopefully doing without–will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment.

Those words really hit the proverbial nail on the head, don’t they? We are rarely, if ever, fulfilled. Thoughtful Christians recognize that fact. Secular society recognizes this reality. The suggestion that waiting enables fulfillment, however, escapes us. The notion that without waiting we will never find fulfillment is completely foreign to us, but if we can remember back to a time when our wants were not immediately satiated, we know it is also completely true.

For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.

This Advent, let us wait expectantly and patiently.

Let us re-learn the art of waiting that we might be truly fulfilled.

“Come, Lord Jesus,” we pray, “and illumine our darkness by your light.”

Amen.

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prayer for the First Sunday in Advent (BoCP)

Candle light

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer

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prayer for the First Sunday in Advent (LSB)

praying hands

Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Your mighty deliverance; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent, Lutheran Service Book

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where did the gospel go?

St. Peter's, Partick

 

A quick glance at church websites in my area that preach topical sermon series yields a breadth of fascinating topics:

  • life lessons from Jonah
  • evangelism
  • character study of Obadiah
  • lessons on love from Ruth
  • the power we get through conversion
  • studies on family
  • God’s teaching on sex
  • lessons on confidence from 2 Corinthians
  • and so on…

As interesting as these topics are, the Gospel is nowhere to be found in any of them.

It sounds harsh to suggest that among Evangelical churches, supposedly known for their voracious adherence to the ‘good news,’ but there is nothing here but Law. Whoa, wait, hold it!  Law…Gospel…what in the world am I talking about? In a nutshell, I mean simply this:

All Scripture is either Law or Gospel. That is, either a it is God’s Law speaking to us, telling us what to do and what not to do, or it is God’s Gospel telling us what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

The Law may be characterized as ALWAYS telling its listeners what TO DO and what NOT TO DO. The Gospel may be characterized as always telling its listeners WHAT GOD HAS DONE for them in Christ Jesus. (from Lutheran Wiktionary)

Does my accusation make sense now? These sermons, as well-intended as they all are, consist of little more than lists of do’s and don’ts. Implicit in this sort of American Evangelical preaching is the notion that if we can only live up to God’s expectations for us, he will bless us. If we don’t, he will curse us. This is not biblical Christianity, it is moralism.

More importantly, it is not the Gospel.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the Law in the life of every believer. It is essential for us to hear the Law and to remind us of God’s moral, ethical, and behavioral expectations. Arrogant, self-confident believers especially need to hear the Law and be reminded of our absolute dependence upon Christ. But–and this is a big but, I cannot lie–if this is the only preaching believers hear, they are missing out of the essence of the Gospel, Christ’s work for us. Unfortunately, based on the lists of sermon series at the church websites I visited, these folks are getting all Law and no Gospel.

Here’s the real problem.  Those whose lives are filled with pain, marked by uncertainty, overwhelmed by guilt, or crushed by their own sinfulness need desperately to hear the Gospel.  They need to be reminded of about Immanuel–that God is with us.  They need to hear the ‘good news’ that God in Christ has done absolutely everything to secure our salvation.  They need to know that God is for us.  The last thing they need to hear is demand after demand after demand.  The need to experience and rest in the unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus.

Fellow pastors, you must preach the Law…but you must also continually nourish God’s flock entrusted to your care with the Gospel.

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asking why in the midst of tragedy


Tragedies are all around us. It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at the news to recognize the reality of devastation and its inevitability in our own lives. In times of tragedy, one of the first words that often finds itself on our lips is, “Why?” In the moment, it is usually a cry of desperation as we try to wrap our minds around the loss we have just witnessed. After the initial shock of things, however, that question can become one of deep philosophical and theological meaning as we try to reconcile events with what we know and believe about life, humanity, and God.

This weekend, I was reading Acts 12 and noticed something fascinating. In the beginning of that chapter, we read:

About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword. (Acts 12.1-2, NLT)

In the very next verse, Herod has Peter arrested and intends on similarly putting him to death. This time, however, the outcome is very different. Peter is miraculously rescued from his captor by an angel, resulting in his startled confession:

The Lord has sent his angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me! (Acts 12.11, NLT)

Why?

Why did the Lord supernaturally intervene in Peter’s life but not James? Were not both apostles? Were not both deeply involved in the life of the infant church? Were not both (insert question here)?

Here’s the startling thing, for me at least. Luke neither asks nor speculates why. Nor does anyone else in his account.

Does this suggest that no one in the church asked why? I doubt it. Such a question is only natural. But, for the Christian, such a question is ultimately a distraction. Even in the midst of great suffering, pain, and sorrow, the question of why is never answered in Scripture–read Job if you don’t believe me.

And so, that question is the wrong question to ask. Instead of asking, “Why did God allow this suffering to take place?” the proper question to ask is, “What has God done about this great suffering?” The answer to that question, of course, is found in Christ.

In Christ, evil is finally conquered. In Christ, pain is completely soothed. In Christ, suffering is ultimately comforted.

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a prayer for correction and guidance

Celtic Church Ruin

We beseech Thee, O Lord, mercifully to correct our wanderings, and by the guiding radiance of Thy compassion to bring us to the salutary vision of Thy truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Gothic Missal

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a blessing

Cross in the fields

In times of trouble, may the LORD answer your cry.
May the name of the God of Jacob keep you safe from all harm.
May he send you help from his sanctuary
and strengthen you from Jerusalem.
May he remember all your gifts
and look favorably on your burnt offerings.

May he grant you your heart’s desires
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy when we hear of your victory
and raise a victory banner in the name of our God.
May the LORD answer all your prayers.

Psalm 20.1-5, NLT

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‘impossible’ grace

Pescatore all'alba sulle foci del fiume Chidro - San Pietro In Bevagna - Taranto - Italy [ Explored Jan 4, 2013 #56]“Impossible.”

All too often that is our human response to the notion that God conveys grace through means like the sacraments. Perhaps, in America, we are too steeped in a Christianity influenced heavily by a Zwinglian flavor of Reformed thought or an overly-sensationalized, Pentecostal television ministries. Perhaps, in 2013, we are too intellectually-sophisticated to believe that God would choose to work through things as mundane as water, bread, and wine.

Such struggles are not new. Tertullian wrote about the human tendency to expect God to work only in the spectacular in the second and third century. In his work, On Baptism, he wrote:

There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible.

Some things never change, do they? Neither our tendency toward disbelief…nor God’s condescension to lavish his grace upon us plainly and wonderfully.

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debt ceilings, government shutdowns, and the Kingdom of God

Capitol at Sunset

To point out that the hours and days ahead are precarious for America’s political and financial systems is to point out the obvious. At times when disaster seemingly looms just around the corner, interest in politics blossoms, and nearly everyone with a keyboard and a political opinion feels the obligation to weigh in on this or that. The talking heads are droning on in their predictable choruses. The left and right are simultaneously blaming each other while taking credit for any bright spots of hope that may appear.

Christians all across America, professedly polarizing in their politics on days when nothing important appears on the political landscape, are certainly not going to be left out of the ruckus either. Some bloggers are writing about why debt ceilings are unbiblical while others are touting how give great glory to God through the political process. Others are writing how wonderful is the government shutdown while others lament it effects on families and the economy.

I can’t help but think they’re all missing the point. Entirely.

Politics and political systems are important, don’t get me wrong. As proud as Americans are of our political system, they are not an end in themselves but only a means to an end. As a result, we mustn’t trust too highly in politics or expect too much from politicians. If we do, we will be consistently disappointed.

I have no doubt our politicians will come up with a solution to avert fiscal crisis, re-open the government, and get back to business-as-usual…probably kicking the proverbial can farther into the future as politicians are wont to do.

So what’s my point? Don’t put too much trust in politicians, political parties, or politics as a whole. They have their place, but nowhere are we as Christians called to be so completely wrapped around the political axle as we tend to be in America.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and [God] will give you everything you need.
– Luke 12.31 (NLT)

The Kingdom of God is not found in any political system or any nation. It is, in fact, a-political.

Some take pride in chariots, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of Yahweh our God.
– Psalm 20.7 (HCSB)

Don’t put your ultimate trust in the wrong place–politics–ultimately it cannot save us, temporally or eternally.

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Luther on prayer

folded_hands

None can believe how powerful prayer is, and what it is able to effect, but those who have learned it by experience.

It is a great matter when in extreme need, to take hold on prayer.

I know, whenever I have earnestly prayed, I have been amply heard, and have obtained more than I prayed for; God, indeed, sometimes delayed, but at last he came.

Martin Luther, Table Talk

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pursued by goodness (getting Ps 23 right)

You have a ways to go yet

This morning in church we read Psalm 23.

There is absolutely nothing even remotely odd about that.  After all, this is one of the most beloved and comforting psalms in the entire Psalter.  This morning our focus was on the first part of verse six, which is traditionally rendered:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6a, ESV)

This translation is well and good…except it is not nearly strong enough to describe God’s actions toward us.  Most English bibles have followed the tradition established by the KJV and translated the Hebrew word radaph (רָדַף) as ‘followed,‘ but a quick look at the standard lexicons shows that this word is more often understood aspursued.’  God’s actions here are better understood like this:

Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6, HCSB)

I don’t know about you, but being pursued feels a whole lot different than merely being followed.  God, in his goodness and faithful love, does exactly that–he pursues us…

Relentlessly.  Tirelessly.  Persistently.  Lovingly.  Mercifully.

Thanks be to God!

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the Lord…a strong refuge

The Castle of BelogradchikThe LORD is good,a strong refuge when trouble comes.
He is close to those who trust in him.
But he will sweep away his enemies
in an overwhelming flood.
He will pursue his foes
into the darkness of the night.

Nahum 1.7-8, NLT

 

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the focus of worship?

Mosaic Paradise of San Vitale

Ask most any Christian about the focus of worship and you are likely to receive an immediate ‘Sunday-school’ answer: “The focus of worship is God!”  With those words still hanging in an imaginary comic book text bubble in the air, a follow-on question about the worship style may generate hesitation and may even spark a passionate debate, revealing a competing interest in questions about worship: we as individuals.

Our society is consumer-based.  Everywhere we turn we are blasted with messages competing for our limited time and resources in an attempt to get us to choose Product A over Product B.  Unfortunately, in an attempt to be ‘relevant,’ ‘missional,’ ‘exciting,’ or (insert most-recent church ‘marketing’ buzzword here) and lure the unchurched in the front doors, the church has followed suit.  Almost without exception, discussions of worship style end up ultimately focusing on appeal to people.  While I am not one to advocate a one-liturgy-fits-all approach to corporate worship, the way in which we have approached worship styles in the church has completely changed the focus of worship from God to us.

Responding to an email on the purpose of worship, Frederica Mathewes-Green recently wrote a powerful essay calling out this shift in emphasis from God.  I encourage you to read her entire response, but one particular aspect struck a chord with me.  She writes:

If, instead, we focus on attracting outsiders, it will feel to them like every other advertising pitch they encounter. The church can never compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world can give them more enjoyable diversions than we can, and can do it without requiring them to leave the house on Sunday morning. If we are successful in attracting people to the church on the basis of fun and entertainment, we’re guilty of false advertising, for Christ promises us nothing in this life but a cross. But if we worship with whole-hearted focus on God, they will see something they encounter nowhere else in their lives. They may not at first see Christ, but they can see that we see something, and that gives them something to think about; that’s how faith begins.

She nailed it.  If the focus on our worship is us–that is what entertainment is about, after all–we will continue to fail.  The world will always provide a better alternative.  Not only that, but we will have sorely missed the true focus of worship in the first place:  the Triune God.

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hiding behind Christ

Despite the pressures and external pressures to be more authentic or relevant, the Word that the pastor is given to speak is the objective certainty of a crucified and risen Savior of sinners.  It does not mimic the trends of the culture or emotion or entertainment. Most importantly, the Word proclaimed by the pastor does not depend on the man behind the collar.  For when a pastor wears the clerical collar of the Office into which he has been placed, his own individuality is covered in order to show Christ.

That is his vocation–to bring Christ to the people–such that when a pastor is praying with the hospitalized, communing the shut-in, comforting the bereaved or simply visiting with his flock, the collar he wears is an indication of the pure Gospel of Christ that he is given to bring.  As such, his collar is white, vesting his vocal chords from where the ear is filled with the Gospel and reminding the pastor and the people of the purpose of his ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry: to speak the word of God.

– Pr. Anthony Voltattorni, Lutheran Witness, Nov 2012

morning prayer, Psalm 61

Aonach Meadhoin, Glen Shiel

God, hear my cry;
pay attention to my prayer.
I call to You from the ends of the earth
when my heart is without strength.
Lead me to a rock that is high above me,
for You have been a refuge for me,
a strong tower in the face of the enemy.
I will live in Your tent forever
and take refuge under the shelter of Your wings

Psalm 61.1-4, HCSB

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an Orthodox prayer

Inflame our hearts with love for Thee, O Christ our God, that loving Thee with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, we may obey Thy commandments and glorify Thee, the Giver of all good things.  Amen.

the HCSB: great but not perfect

Movable Type galley. Galera con tipos móviles.In two previous posts (here and here), I touted the excellence of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, but I would be remiss to explicitly or implicitly suggest that the translation is perfect. As a translation, it is not perfect, but it is such an excellent version that its lack of widespread acceptance and use–even in light of the cult-classic status of the ESV–absolutely baffles me. Let me now offer four unsolicited, ‘big-picture’ suggestions for improvement of this already remarkable translation.  While I am working on a writeup dealing with translation recommendations of specific verses in the HCSB, I shall not get to that level of detail today.  Instead, these thoughts aim to serve is a high-level critique, suitable for consumption by everyone, not just those who want to dive into the details of language translation issues.

the name: HCSB1

OK, so this is probably not fair game because no established bible translation is going to change its name after nearly a decade of publication, but I lament that the publishers chose to name this translation the HCSB for three reasons:

  1. “Holman” — no matter how many times anyone says, “The HCSB isn’t a Southern Baptist bible,” having Holman in the name has forever wrongly linked the SBC and the HCSB, creating a theological bias that does not exist. It would be like Concordia publishing a bible that ‘wasn’t Lutheran’ or JPS publishing an Old Testament that ‘wasn’t Jewish’…except that the HCSB really is not a baptist bible!  Trust me on this, I went to Southern Seminary but am not baptist.  Even though, the HCSB does not have a denominational slant to it, I think it will forever fight an uphill (losing?) battle to convince folks of this reality.
  2. “Christian” — kinda goes without saying that a bible will be “Christian,” no? Why bother?
  3. “Standard” — in my opinion, the whole idea of a “standard” English bible died with the explosion of the multitude of bible translations the English language now enjoys. The RSV was probably the last true ‘standard’ bible.  Now, such a name is wishful thinking, at best.

Let this observation merely be a lesson to future English bible translation committees, not that we need one for the next 25 years or so given that we have the HCSB right now!

translation: “the name is Yahweh”

One of the banners at the top of the HCSB website proclaims, “The name is Yahweh. God gave us his personal name, which is why you’ll see it in the Holman Christian Standard Bible.” Translating the tetragrammaton (YHWH) as Yahweh instead of the traditional LORD was a bold move in bible translation, done previously to my knowledge only in the New Jerusalem Bible. It is also linguistically correct.  My last post pointed out the importance and benefit of this choice.

The first edition used Yahweh a handful of times. The 2010 update upped that to about 500 times. I’d love to see the translators use it consistently across the nearly 7,000 instances of YHWH in the Old Testament. There is no good case in my mind for translating YHWH as Yahweh sometimes and as LORD other times–if anything it only muddies the waters since most readers will not recognize that the Hebrew beneath these two translations is identical. “Pastor, what’s the significance of the difference here?” Reply, “Um, eh, um…there is none.”

editions: take a risk to create loyal fans, B&H

One of my favorite things about the ESV is that Crossway isn’t afraid to take a risk on editions that the ‘experts’ shun as unprofitable. Examples of ‘risky’ editions abound, including: the ESV Journaling Bible, the ESV Wide Margin (forthcoming), the Personal Size Reference Bible / Personal Reference Bible, and a host of single-column layouts. Crossway has also partnered with Baker/Cambridge to produce some stunning editions: wide-margin, Pitt-Minion, and Clarion layouts. While I have no idea about the sales of any of these individual editions, the overall strategy has worked.  ESV fans are some of the most incredibly-loyal bible version fans out there!  These are all rather niche editions that are probably not big money makers–I know because I’ve corresponded with folks in the publishing departments at B&H and Tyndale in the past and received that exact answer. No projected sales = no backing from management.  Pardon me, but Crossway has demonstrated the foolishness of this answer.

Here’s my question to B&H: since such customer responsiveness creates insanely-loyal customers and Crossway (another non-profit) is willing to take these risks, why not do the same with the HCSB instead of giving us a couple of very solid specialty editions (e.g., the HCSB Study Bible is an incredibly solid study bible for one) but repackaging the same few double-column, center-reference, red-letter editions over and over?2 Or how about this crazy notion, partner with Tyndale to create a parallel (facing-page, please) HCSB-NLT bible? I’ll buy a case, or ten!

editions part two: academic credibility

Another amazing thing Crossway has done with the ESV, which has created a great level of credibility in academic circles, is to partner with the United Bible Societies to create four amazing academic editions: a parallel Greek NT, a parallel Hebrew OT, and both NT and OT interlinear editions.

I would love to see the same thing done with the HCSB, especially the parallel/diglot editions.3 Looking to justify the gamble, B&H? Last I checked, the SBC had nearly 10,000 seminarians…how’s that for a great first publication run? How great would it be for this fantastic translation to be taken seriously (i.e., used regularly) in academic circles and not just SBC Sunday school materials?

Each of these ideas are mine, but I do not think I’m the only one that holds them.  In fact, I’ll bet that first case of HCSB-Hebrew/Greek diglots or parallel HCSB-NLT bibles that I’m not!


1 I’m really not sure why I bothered to list this, except to point out again, in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion that the HCSB is NOT a Baptist bible.
2 To be fair, the new text block in the most-recent HCSB reference bible is a thing of beauty. See my thoughts on it here. In addition, as I mentioned, the HCSB Study Bible is an incredible study bible that should enjoy much better sales than it currently does…I don’t have access to the sales history but it isn’t even in the Sept 13 top ten study bible list, seriously?! Especially unfathomable to me in light of the fact that the number one study bible is B&H’s KJV Study Bible.
3 I can almost see the visceral reaction of my Greek professors (one of whom is now the chairman of the HCSB translation oversight committee!) at the suggestion that we put diglots in the hands of seminary students.  I’m certainly not advocating these tools be used instead of the traditional Greek NT during Greek studies, but as one who has been in the post-seminary ‘real-world’ of ministry now for nearly ten years, I freely admit that my Greek / Hebrew skills will never be to the point where I don’t need some helps to read even though I read Greek / Hebrew several times a week.  A diglot is a much better tool (i.e., less of a crutch) than an interlinear.

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the HCSB: matters of style done well

shiny happy letters (reprise)

Every new bible translation adopts a particular ‘style’ or ‘feel’ to its English.  For the sake of consistency, translation committees are forced during their work to make many stylistic decisions that will affect how the English will read.  These decisions are compounded by the very nature of their work–translation–where a mechanical word-for-word translation of each individual word from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek into English would result in an almost nonsensical translation that read more like a monologue from Yoda than any form of written or spoken English.

Now, when comparing bible translations, people tend to speak of formal vs dynamic equivalence.  I am not a fan of discussing bible translations in terms of equivalence because I honestly believe these comparisons are 1) misleading because no translation (bible or not) from one language to another truly presents a consistent word-for-word translation, as anyone who speaks more than one language will tell you and 2) often used pejoratively to discuss why other translations fall short of the one being touted.  More than this, these comparisons are both relative (i.e., there is no standard by which to measure equivalency) and, as a result, subjective (i.e., even the most well-intended comparison is ultimately done at the whim of the individual making the rankings).  There are better ways to compare and evaluate translations.

With that pet peeve in mind, let’s ask what sort of style did the Holman Christian Standard Bible adopt?  Here are a few of the general, stylistic choices the HCSB made that I think are right on the money…

‘Messiah’ vs ‘Christ’

Hopefully this doesn’t burst anyone’s theological bubble, but Christ is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah.  In other words, they are synonyms, even though we tend not to think of them that way.  We tend to think of Messiah in only Old Testament terms and Christ in only New Testament terms–wrongly creating a distinction without a difference.

How does the HCSB handle this?  It does not simply translate the Greek word ‘christos’ as either Christ or Messiah, but chooses how to translate it based on the larger context with a footnote at the first use in any chapter reminding readers why.  Based on the explanation in the footnote,  ‘christos’ used in a Jewish context is typically translated Messiah, whereas in a Gentile context it is translated Christ.  The best place to see this is the multiple speeches in the book of Acts.  One could probably find specific instances that fail to abide by the general rule–I have not taken the time to look at every single occurrence–but overall the decision so translate ‘christos’ in this fashion is both a helpful and accurate choice.

Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

– Acts 5.42, HCSB

‘Instruction’ vs ‘Law’

English translations traditionally translate the Hebrew word ‘torah’ as law.  Presumably, this is done because the oldest Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) translated it this way.  The problem is that ‘law’ is not the best way to understand ‘torah,’ especially in Western society, where ‘law’ typically has a very cold, antiseptic connotation.  As the Dictionary of New Testament Background points out, “The word Torah is derived from the Hebrew [word] meaning ‘to guide’ or ‘to teach’ …as in Exodus 35:34 and Leviticus 10:11. Thus the more precise meaning of the noun would be ‘teaching’ or ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘law.’”

The HCSB breaks with the traditional translation of ‘torah’ as ‘law’ and instead rightly translates it ‘instruction.’  Though non-traditional, it is a superior translation.

How happy are those whose way is blameless, who live according to the Lord’s instruction!

– Psalm 119.1, HCSB

‘Yahweh’ vs ‘LORD’

As mentioned previously, one of the innovations the HCSB translators made was to translate the Hebrew name YHWH into English as the Yahweh.  Typically, English bibles translate the tetragrammaton as LORD in all caps or small caps, a tradition that goes back to the style chosen by the KJV translators over 400 years ago.  The 1901 American Standard Version consistently translated YHWH as Jehovah, a translation now almost universally understood to be an incorrect rendering of the Hebrew.  The 1985 Roman Catholic New Jerusalem Bible translates YHWH as Yahweh throughout the Old Testament.

Recognizing that YHWH is a proper name, the HCSB translators decided to take a non-traditional route and translate YHWH as Yahweh, though not consistently or evenly.  I shall go into more detail about this inconsistency in future posts, but needless to say translating YHWH as Yahweh vs LORD is a huge and welcome change.  At the very least, when we read Yahweh, we instantly recognize that we are not reading about some ancient, nameless God.  At its finest, this translation style makes some passages go from nonsensical to wonderfully vivid.  For example, here how Moses and Aaron’s exchange with Pharaoh in the beginning of Exodus 5 is traditionally rendered:

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness. ‘” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.”

– Exodus 5.1-2, ESV

This sounds well and good, but Pharaoh definitely would have known who the Lord was, that is who was God.  In Ancient Egypt he, Pharaoh, was god!  This dialogue only becomes transparent and makes sense when we recognize that what we have traditionally (and wrongly) read as LORD is actually the proper name of the God is Israel.

Later, Moses and Aaron went in and said to Pharaoh, “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says: Let My people go, so that they may hold a festival for Me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh responded, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey Him by letting Israel go? I do not know anything about Yahweh, and besides, I will not let Israel go.”

– Exodus 5.1-2, HCSB

Read with Yahweh instead of LORD, this exchange makes complete sense.  Pharaoh had no idea who Yahweh was…just another god of one the nations around him, who he did not feel compelled to obey or worship.

Each of these stylistic choices goes against the grain of the traditional English bible translation begun by the venerable KJV.  While we should not easily dismiss church tradition for the novel and ‘better,’ we must recognize that our knowledge of ancient languages is always improving even while our own language is always evolving…two realities that require us to not become slaves to our translation traditions, especially when there are truly better ways to render the word of God into contemporary English.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Markus Mayer via Compfight

the HCSB: everything I hoped the ESV would be

The ESV is the bible translation I’ve always wanted and tried to love. I had one pre-ordered back in 2001 in hopes it would be the best bible in the English language. I had high hopes that it would “fix” the quirky wording of the updated NASB, address some of the concerns raised about NIV translation choices, and be the only bible I would use or need for years to come.

I used the ESV exclusively for many years–always wanting to consider it “the one” but never quite being able to do so. On the surface there is much to love about the ESV: endorsements from every Christian ‘rock star’ preacher / teacher / professor on the scene today; a multitude of incredibly well-done layouts / editions; second-to-none marketing; and a wonderful, non-profit publisher (Crossway) that does a tremendous job printing and distributing the word1. But as far as the translation itself, I’ve never gotten over the fact that it’s ‘essentially literal’ philosophy has given us a translation that is essentially identical to the RSV on which I was raised and hardly groundbreaking at all.

While the ESV has won a lot of accolades and advocates, there have been many criticisms leveled at it too. In 2007, Dr. Mark Strauss presented a paper at ETS titled, “Why the English Standard Version Should not become the Standard English Version.” In this paper, he presented approximately two hundred specific instances where the ESV could be improved and compared the ESV rendering against a multitude of other English translations. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he failed to consistently compare any translation against his examples except the TNIV, which has never won widespread acceptance.

This week, I took Strauss’ examples and compared them against the readings in the Holman Christian Standard Bible and concluded that, while not perfect either, I can say that the HCSB is everything I hoped the ESV would be. While that sounds like a strange endorsement, my point is this: instead of continuing to call for revisions / updates / etc. to the ESV’s awkward and archaic English, those concerned should instead take a look at the HCSB, where almost none of these common objections exist.

Here are some of the specifics, based on my analysis of Strauss’ categories. In the realm of “oops translations,” the HCSB correctly translated 100% of his seven examples. The HCSB also properly rendered 77% of the 43 missed idioms on his list. With respect to 18 lexical errors Strauss pointed out, the HCSB corrected 92% of the errors present in the ESV. Surprisingly to me, of the seven exegetical errors Strauss cites, the HCSB only got 50% right…something I shall have to look more into. The final category I compared was title collocational errors, which are a grammar mistake where speakers/translators use the wrong combination of words when constructing common phrases. Here the HCSB scored a respectable 73%. I did not even bother looking over Strauss’ list of archaic or poorly-worded English, because even its advocates will not argue the reality of the ESV’s less-than-modern English. Overall, the HCSB correctly translated 78% of the ‘problems’ Strauss has with the ESV. The 2011 ESV update has still not corrected / adjusted / addressed any of the issues Strauss raised back in 2007.

While few writers present such in-depth criticisms of the ESV, many suggestions and wishes routinely crop up among bloggers and writers. One of the most common wishes is for the use of ‘slave’ instead of ‘bondservant’ throughout the New Testament. Others have argued for translating the tetragrammaton / YHWH as ‘Yahweh’ instead of the traditional ‘LORD.’ Though by no means consistent with the latter, the HCSB incorporates both of these additional suggestions.

So, over against the ESV, the HCSB corrects a multitude of translation-related problems and incorporates routinely-expressed wishes that the ESV translation committee has consistently decided against. As if that weren’t enough reason to consider the HCSB a decidedly superior English translation, think on this…The HCSB is the only major English translation to properly translate John 3:16. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” This is not the KJV-influenced English rendering to which we are all accustomed. But, this verse is not about how much God loved the world (i.e., “soooo much”) but about what that loved motivated God to do for the world.

The HCSB is not without it’s faults. I’m drafting some thoughts on areas where I think the HSCB should continue to improve in future revisions–including some ideas that I think might help the translation score some much-needed traction and acceptance, which has been sorely lacking for such a great translation. With that in mind, however, I can confidently say that the HCSB…truly is everything I hoped the ESV would be…probably the best translation in the English language today.


1 Crossway’s responsiveness to customer feedback, production of some of the most wonderful editions / text layouts ever devised, and commitment to proclaim the gospel through the publishing efforts is one of the principal reasons I continue to purchase and consult the ESV…and a reason you should too!

prayer for patience in adversity

Devotion

O God, by the patient suffering of Your only-begotten Son, You have beaten down the pride of the old enemy. Now help us, we humbly pray, to imitate all that our Lord has of His goodness borne for our sake, that after His example, we may bear with patience all that is adverse to us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Treasury of Daily Prayer

photo credit: Creative Commons | Bert Kaufmann

on good works

om10 - father forgive

It is the perversity of the world that, when we preach about forgiveness of sins by pure grace and without merit of man, it should either say we forbid good works, or else try to draw the conclusion that man may continue to live in sin and follow his own pleasure; when the fact is, we should particularly strive to live a life the very reverse of sinful, that our doctrine may draw people to good works, unto the praise and honor and glory of God.  Our doctrine, rightly apprehended, does not influence to pride and vice, but to humility and obedience.

Martin Luther, House Postils, Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Many non-Lutherans mistakenly believe that Luther was soft on sanctification, and many Lutherans proudly proclaim as much (implicitly or explicitly).  Both are wrong. Though lost on many contemporary, American Lutherans, Martin Luther was an outspoken champion of good works for the benefit and blessing of our neighbor.  Unfortunately, in reaction to anything that even remotely smacks of Pietism, American Lutherans especially recoil at the language of “works” regardless of context.

Truth is, it is impossible that the Christian life, forever affected by the unfathomable grace of Christ Jesus, could be marked by anything but a striving for good works.  Such efforts do not reflect a misguided attempt to secure the blessings of God but are the overflow of thanksgiving from a sinner whose life has been inexorably changed.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Johnny Wilson

on dramatic conversions as the norm

One of my most negatively memorable times from seminary was when a well-respected professor questions the legitimacy of a student’s faith because he could neither remember the exact date of his “coming to Christ” nor could he describe it in dramatic detail like Saul’s conversion in Acts 9.  This particular student was foreign and not from a tradition so highly-influenced by American revivalism as the seminary where I studied.  I simultaneously felt embarrassed for the student and angry at this professor for having the audacity to question another believer’s faith because of these trivialities.  I wish I had these words so eloquently prepared that day:

Some interpreters treat Saul’s experience as a model for Christian conversion, as though every person has to experience a crisis in order to become a Christian.  This is misleading.  Though God can and does work in people’s lives through crises, conversion is always the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace…Let no one question your salvation because you came to faith quietly, without some dramatic experience.  What matters is trust in Jesus as the Savior, which is truly what made Saul a Christian.

The Lutheran Study Bible, note on Acts 9.3-9 (emphasis mine)

That conversion results in dramatic change to thought, word, and deed is a given.  That conversion necessitates a ‘Damascus road experience’ is foreign to the Gospel.

prayer of the day, 7.27

play of light in santhome church

Christ, our risen Lord, Your resurrection showed us what we will someday be and what we already are now through our Baptism into Your holy name.  Give us courage to bear in our bodies Your resurrected life as we live out the fruit of Your victory over death through works of charity and mercy; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Treasury of Daily Prayer

photo credit:  Creative Commons | Vinoth Chandar

perspective: Earth from Saturn

earth_from_saturn

This week NASA released an image of Earth from Saturn as seen from Cassini.  How’s that for putting our human self-centeredness into perspective?  Feeling small?

photo credit: NASA

our yes to evil

With each one of us there is a Yes to the evil that can be held back by God’s grace alone. But God is mightier than all evil in the world.

- Bo Giertz, Hammer of God

suffering and adoption

kidsObvious or not, adoption and suffering often go hand-in-hand.  Infertility, miscarriage, disease, sickness, accidents, death, infidelity, grief, separation, insecurity, tragedy, heartbreak, pain, jealousy, rebellion, and loneliness are just a few of the multitude of hardships patiently and expectantly endured by many (or most) adoptive families, both children and parents.  Everyone is able to understand some of them, at least empathetically, but those who have not experienced the process first-hand have a hard time recognizing the totality of difficulties faced in adoption.

It is in the pain, suffering, and sometimes evil circumstances that accompany adoption that God does some of his most marvelous work.  That is why a quote I recently read from Miroslav Volf impacted me so much:

God works against evil and suffering. But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.

Struggling with years of miscarriages and infertility definitely counts as suffering, but if my wife and I didn’t endure that suffering, I don’t know if we would have have chosen to adopt and would not have been blessed with three of the four children we have today.  I cannot imagine the heartbreak of a mother leaving her infant son–himself a result of infidelity–on the steps of an orphanage in Ukraine; but if it weren’t for that grief, I would never have known and loved my older son.  I would never wish for children to have to endure watching their mother live with the horrors of and finally succumb to HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, but if it weren’t for that suffering, our younger daughter and son would not be in our family today.  I certainly have not wished the many hurdles upon my family that adapting to a multi-ethnic, multi-adoptive family has brought us, but out of those struggles have come some of the most grace-created, joy-filled memories of my life.

God certainly does not will evil, suffering, pain, or loss.  But in the midst of those, he is most certainly at work.

God working through suffering

Water for Sale

God works against evil and suffering. But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.

- Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge

photo credit: Creative Commons | Hartwig HKD

the love of God

religionSurely the whole world does not grasp the tiniest syllable of the statement that God is love. No human religion can hold its own in the face of the judgment, but it is solely in the blood of Christ that we have confidence on the Day of Judgment.

– Martin Luther

photo credit: Creative Commons | Raul Lieberwirth

heart trouble

All sorrows, all heartaches, all disappointments, all bereavements, and all heart troubles lose their bitterness in the sweetness of the Savior’s tender promise: ‘I will come again.’

– from Meditations on the Gospels

we are called to be the church

image

from “A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada”

Mother India: Life Through The Eyes of The Orphan

As an adoptive parent of three wonderful children from Ukraine and Ethiopia, I jumped at the chance to review an advance copy of Mother India: Life Through the Eyes of the Orphan by Word Films.  After watching now several times, I can stun up the entire movie in one word: other-wordly.  (OK, it’s hyphenated, but it’s still technically one word)

India is home to over 31 million orphans…read that again…31,000,000 orphans.  That number is far greater than the combined total populations of the ten largest cities in the United States.  Think of the entire populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose COMBINED , and then add New York in AGAIN.  That is nearly 31 million.  It’s unfathomable, isn’t it?

In this film, David Trotter and Shawn Scheinoha get taken in by a family of 25 orphans living in and around a train station in rural India.  What they experience and share is guaranteed to break your heart.  The experiences of these children, their struggles to cope with hardship, and the true family that they have developed is truly unbelievable for most Americans.  As one who has traveled around the world and seen living conditions that have literally made me sick to my stomach, Mother India succeeds in giving insights into the plight of these orphans.  It does much more than that, however, and this is where it truly shines…David and Shawn have told us the names and stories of just a few of India’s countless orphans.

Through this movie we come to know, not just about them, but to a little bit about them as people and their stories.  This movie is an absolute must-see.  But…you won’t want to watch it all.  It will break your heart.  It will leave you unable to continue in your own status quo knowing about the stories of these children (and the 147 million orphans world-wide who share similar lives) but content to not think about them anymore.  And that, friends, is a tremendous, God-blessed burden for us to act upon!

Mother India releases today, April 23rd!  Pick up a copy here at Amazon (not an affiliate link)…you won’t be disappointed.

Prayer Book of the Early Christians : a review

Prayer is part of the sacred heartbeat of the Christian faith. Prayer is learned by praying, alone or with others. Prayer, for many, is also one of the most challenging aspects of the Christian life. As Scot McKnight wrote earlier today:

Prayer is not only hard for most Christians, it is discouraging to be reminded of the importance of prayer. Sometimes it is a scolding preacher and other times nothing more than the word of someone who seems so good at prayer. A few years ago I became convinced that one of the major reasons prayer is hard is because we rely too much upon ourselves.

In light of what is a discouraging experience for many of us, how are we to enrich our lives of prayer? Throughout the history of the Church, she has turned primarily to two sources for prayer–Scripture itself (primary the Psalter) and prayer books. While the latter is unfamiliar to many Evangelicals, prayer books have a long history throughout Eastern and Western Church traditions. The Prayer Book of the Early Christians by John McGuckin is a new prayer book influenced heavily by Eastern (i.e., Russian and Greek) Orthodoxy. As such, it offers a treasure trove of ancient but most likely unknown material to those of us in the West.

The structure of the daily office (i.e., Morning, Midday, and Evening prayers for those unfamiliar with the term) will not be unfamiliar for Roman Catholics or others in liturgical traditions, though the prayers–aside from the Psalms used–will no doubt be new. In addition to these daily prayers, there is a section of about fifty prayers and shorter liturgies ranging from prayers before meals, to prayers for the sick, to a blessing for a home. The depth and richness of the prayer included, many of which date back to the time of the Church Fathers, is a welcome antidote for much of the shallow platitudes that tend to make up many of our prayers today. While Evangelical Protestants will no doubt avoid the included petitions to the saints and to the Virgin Mary, there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater and conclude that there is nothing profitable in this work. On the contrary, Prayer Book of the Early Christians, is one of the most easy to follow, historically rich, and approachable prayer books I have come across in a long time.

After using this book almost daily for several months, I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to grow in their prayer life and delve into the amazing tradition of prayer the Christian church has built over nearly two thousand years.

Prayer Book of the Early Christians is available from Paraclete Press, Amazon, and other bookstores (not affiliate links).

My thanks to Sr. Madeleine at Paraclete for providing me a copy to review!

new Holman Christian Standard Bible editions

After making significant updates to the HCSB in 2010 and releasing the superb HCSB Study Bible shortly after, B&H has started releasing some new HCSB reference editions featuring a completely redone text layout and greatly expanded textual and translation-related footnotes.  So far, both regular and large-print Ultrathin reference editions have been published with the new text block.  The main innovations of the new layout include:

  • sans-serif fonts throughout
  • book and chapter references in the bottom margin instead of the top
  • extensive footnotes for textual and translation-related issues

Below the photos are some thoughts about the new features.  If you’re looking for a review of the HCSB as a translation, Pr. Richard Shields has done a great job reviewing it at his blog: https://exegete77.wordpress.com/

Sans-serif fonts are pretty standard for the web (including this blog) and some e-readers, but a quick look through my library revealed that I have very few print books with this type of font.  To me, in a side-by-side comparison of two equally-sized serif (think Times New Roman) and sans-serif (think Arial) fonts, the sans-serif font appears larger.  Another benefit is that the quirky HCSB choice to bold-face OT quotes in the NT is not nearly as noticeable than in prior editions.  Personally, I think this is a good thing as I find the use of bold-print very distracting.  Overall, though somewhat novel for print editions, I find the sans-serif font extremely easy to read, even for long periods of time.

Book and chapter references are moved to the bottom margin in these bibles.  At first I thought this would be very difficult to get used to after decades of looking to the top margin for these references; however, it took me about five minutes to adjust.  As radical a departure from the norm as this appears, don’t overreact.  It works.

In my opinion, the most wonderful improvement in these new layouts has been the incredible expansion of the footnotes, as seen in a couple of the above pictures.  These notes are not interpretation or study bible-type notes but are exclusively related to textual issues (comparing difference manuscripts) or translation matters (alternate translation possibilities).  As nerdy and academic as this might sound, I find these notes extremely helpful.  The only other bible I have seen that even comes close to this level of detail is the NET bible.  B&H should be commended for this valuable addition.

These new layouts are fantastic.  If you are in the market for a new bible, the HCSB is a super translation, and these new editions are wonderful.  Many thanks to Jeremy Howard at Lifeway for providing me a copy of the large-print edition for review!

seeing and experiencing

2013-02-07 17.25.29

“By God’s design, people are not to be won over to his kingdom primarily by our clever arguments, scary religious tracts, impressive programs, or our sheer insistence that they are going to hell unless they share our theological opinions.  No, they are to be won over by the way in which we replicate Calvary to them.  They are to see and experience the reality of the coming kingdom in us.”

– Gregory A. Boyd

St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow

Храм Василия Блаженного

 

It occurred to me that I needed some color around here…all the recent photos I’ve used have been black and white.

photo credit: courtesy of Serge 585 | copyright / all rights reserved

on approaches to bible translation

Prayer A Powerful Weapon

Last week, I posted a survey on languages and bible preference, which is still open by the way.  (If you haven’t spent the 30 seconds necessary to complete its four questions, I would greatly appreciate it.)  Soon after, I came across these thoughts on bible translation in the preface to a commentary on Romans by Fr. Lawrence Farley, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America serving at St. Herman’s Church in Surrey, British Columbia.  After briefly describing the two principle approaches to translation–formal and dynamic equivalence–he writes:

The English translator is faced, it would seem, with a choice: either he can make the translation something of a rough paraphrase of the original and render it into flowing sonorous English  or he can attempt to make a fairly literal, word-for-word translation from the original with the resultant English being stilted, wooden, and clumsy.

These two basic and different approaches to translation correspond to two basic and different activities in the Church. The Church needs a translation of the Scriptures for use in worship.  This should be in good, grammatical, and flowing English, as elegant as possible and suited to its function in the majestic function of the Liturgy.  The Church also needs a translation of the Scriptures for private study and for group Bible study.  Here the elegance of its English is of lesser concern.  What is of greater concern here is the bring out of all the nuances found in the original.  Thus this approach will tend to sacrifice elegance for literality and, wherever possible, seek a work-for-work correspondence with the Greek.  Also, because the student will want to see how the biblical authors use a particular word (especially St. Paul, who has many works included in the canon), a consistence of translation will be sought and the same Greek word will be translated, whenever possible, by the same English word or its cognate.

So, what do you think about Fr. Farley’s observations concerning the place of different translations in the life of the Church?  Do you agree that we would do well to utilize a more flowing, dynamic translation for public reading and liturgy as part of worship while resorting to a more literal translation for study?  It seems the desire of many (most?) of us is to find that one bible translation that is perfect (or at least suitable) for both worship and study.  In the ever-changing landscape of English bible translation, this quest is as elusive as it is ultimately frustrating.

What do you think of Fr. Farley’s advice?

photo credit: Creative Commons | abcdz2000

why a virgin birth?

That Jesus was born of a virgin is one of the most marvelous aspects of the miracle of the Incarnation.  While not even considering objections from skeptics here, it is not uncommon to hear Christians raise the question, “Why was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary?”  Answers typically revolve around the need to fulfill prophecy (cf. Isaiah 7), show God’s providential initiative, or avoid the transmission of sin*.

Reading through Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho (according to the Read the Fathers reading plan), St. Justin presents the following reason for Jesus’ virgin birth:

He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 100).

In other words, since sin entered the world through a virgin, Eve, Christ was born of the virgin Mary that sin might also be destroyed through a virgin.

His is an interesting one, to say the very least.

* This view only makes sense, of course, if sin is transmitted by male DNA or you further postulate Mary’s Immaculate Conception…neither of which is supported from Scripture or Church Tradition outside of Roman Catholicism.

photo credit: Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO |Copyright 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey

Immanuel…God gives us himself

Christmas 2004: Theotokos of the Passion

The joy and celebration of Christmas is that God took on humanity and dwelt among us.  Immanuel, of course, means “God with us”–as everyone familiar with the Christmas narrative in Matthew’s gospel knows.  Yet, so often, it seems we let this essential mystery of our faith evaporate as soon as Christmas and Epiphany pass, the decorations are put away for another year, and we resume our post-New Year routines.

Usually, this translates into lives characterized not by walking in faith in Christ’s presence with us but by an unending series of questions addressed to him.

  • God, why did you allow ____ or ____ to happen?
  • God, what should I do about ____?
  • God, how will you handle ____?

God does not typically answer those questions.  Just ask Job.  God does not usually reveal his plans to us with crystal clarity.  Ask the apostles about that.  As Oswald Chambers points out, “God does not tell you what He it’s going to do—He reveals to you who He is.”

To be even more succinct, God is not in the business of answering our questions.  He is in the business of coming to us, dwelling with us, and giving himself to us.

He is not our instructor who promises to answer our questions that we might gain knowledge.

He is Immanuel, who has promised never to leave or forsake us, that we might gain him.

This is most certainly true and most certainly better.

photo credit: Creative Commons | DUCKMARK

entirely for Him and Him alone

for_him_alone

When we think seriously about what it will cost others if we obey the call of Jesus, we tell God He doesn’t know what our obedience will mean.  Keep to the point–He does know.  Shut out every other thought and keep yourself before God in this one thing only–my utmost for His highest.  I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and Him alone.

Oswald Chambers

prayer for the third Sunday of Advent

it's that time of the year again

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come
among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver
us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and
the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end.

Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer

 

photo credit: Creative Commons | gato-gato-gato

brass, worship, and death

brass

It is deplorable
   that the gracious gifts of brass and metalworking
are used both to fashion bells and trumpets
   to sing of the bountiful love and mercy of God
and to craft cartridges and artillery shells
   to take the lives of those fashioned in his image.

This thought struck me in worship this morning as we sang joyfully of Christ’s advent accompanied by trumpet, French horn, and bells then soberly pleaded with God to grant comfort, peace, and hope to those affected by the shootings in Connecticut.  How it made me long, more than usual, for the words of Micah to become reality.

[God] will settle disputes among many peoples
and provide arbitration for strong nations that are far away.
They will beat their swords into plows,
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.
But each man will sit under his grapevine and under his fig tree
with no one to frighten him.
– Micah 4.3-4 (HCSB)

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

photo credit: Creative Commons and AP

Ignatius on responding to persecution

Tress in Fog

Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance.  Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds.  In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble  in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do no be eager to imitate them.  Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.

– The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians

 Much could be said about these magnificent words of instruction, but nothing honestly need be said about them.  They are instruction, reminder, rebuke, and encouragement enough.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Wayne Dixon

prayer for the second Sunday of Advent

Second sunday in Advent and two candles are lit

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our
Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer

photo credit: Creative Commons |Per Ola Wiberg

the sins of others

It is far easier for us to point out fault in others than it is to recognize it in ourselves.  One of the most pointed teachings of Jesus centers on forgiving others again and again and again.

The Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’  ‘I tell you, not as many as seven,’ Jesus said to him, ‘but seventy times seven.’

Matthew 18.21-22 (HCSB)

According to the rabbinic teaching of the day, believers were required to forgive a person three times, so in all likelihood Peter thought he was being more than generous in asking if seven times was enough.  As usual, Jesus’ response blows us away–seventy times seven. “Forgive your brother as many times as he is truly repentant,” Jesus might as well have said.

This kind of love is hard.  In our own strength, this kind of love is impossible.

Honestly, we don’t like the idea of forgiving someone this many times.  “Enough is enough!” we’re tempted to cry out.  Even though God continues to forgive our sins again and again and again, there is a part of us that hates the idea of extending this same kind of grace to others.  And yet, the attitude Jesus exemplifies and demands of us is precisely the attitude that realizes that ceasing from sin–especially a long-standing one–involves much more than simply willing ourselves to stop.

There is an archaic English word used throughout the King James Version that describes God’s attitude toward our never-ending cycle of sin and repentance.  The word is “long-suffering.”  According to Merriam-Webster, long-suffering means “patiently enduring lasting offense or hardship.”  That pretty well sums up God’s attitude of grace in the face of our sin.

Here is my 70×7 prayer:

May we be as long-suffering with the sins of others
as God is long-suffering with our own.

Amen.

those who devoutly practice peace

Skyline Speedboat

Therefore let us unite with those who devoutly practice peace and not with those who hypocritically wish for peace.

– 1 Clement 15.1

photo credit: Creative Commons | Evan Leeson

let us fix our eyes…

bwbruno6

Let us fix our eyes on the blood of Christ and understand how precious it is to his Father, because, being poured out for our salvation, it won for the whole world the grace of repentance.

– 1 Clement 7.4

photo credit: Creative Commons | J Voitus

reading the Church Fathers
(an invitation and challenge)

stavropoleos

The Church Fathers are some of the richest and (especially in the West) most overlooked writings in all of Christianity.  Today I discovered Read the Fathers, a website dedicated to a seven-year (gulp!) reading plan to “study a vast library of theology, history, liturgy, apologetics, biblical commentary, and devotion written in the first seven centuries of the Christian church.”  Importantly, the site is built on the premise of community discussion, encouragement, and accountability.

Here’s the real treat–this seven-year journey begins today.  There is a little bit of introductory material by way of background, and the first readings dive right into 1 Clement, a letter you may never have heard of but which was considered part of the canon of scripture by some in the first few centuries of the infant Church.

Head on over to readthefathers.org and subscribe to the readings by whatever means works best for you!

photo credit: Creative Commons | fusion-of-horizons

“on Israel, the Church, and the Politics of Jesus” (link)

For many evangelical Christians, these matters are simple: Israel is God’s side and therefore should be our side, and this about good versus bad, light versus darkness.  Anything less than a ringing endorsement of all Israeli policies is seen as an affront to the living God.  This position is largely determined by eschatological convictions (beliefs about the end of the world), in which Israel (as a modern nation-state) exists as a fulfillment of prophecy.  For some evangelicals, if you send money to an organization that wants to bring Jews from around the world to Israel then you are less likely to get cancer or speeding tickets, or more likely to get a promotion at work.

I have many suspicions about this entire project for many reasons, but I’d start with this simple premise…(continue)

This is the most well-reasoned, theologically astute essay I’ve read on Israel, the Church and (American) politics in a long time.  I encourage you to read it all.

the suffering Christian

Broken Hallelujah

Suffering is inevitable.  Pain is unavoidable.  Life, quite often, hurts.

The litany of the agonies and struggles Christians face is no different than those of the rest of the world:

      • depression
      • substance abuse
      • cutting
      • work problems
      • suicidal thoughts
      • anger
      • dissatisfaction
      • eating disorders
      • body image / self-image
      • relationship problems
      • and on and on…

Contrary to what we sometimes hear or want to believe, the promise of Christ to his followers is not that we are immune or exempt from these.  The promise of God is that we do not face any hardship alone

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name; you are Mine.
I will be with you
when you pass through the waters,
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not overwhelm you.
You will not be scorched
when you walk through the fire,
and the flame will not burn you.

Isaiah 43.1b-2 (HCSB)

Read those words again.  “When” you face difficult, painful times…and they will come, it is certain…God says, “I will be with you.”   We would doubtless all love to avoid pain, I know I do.  The idea that we can do this, however, is both unrealistic and unbiblical.  When we cry out to Christ he may calm the storm–he has done it before and we will continue to pray that he does it again.  Whether or not the storm subsides is not the real point.

In the midst of suffering, God is there.

In the midst of pain, Christ is found.

In the midst of hurting, you are not alone.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Raquel Van Nice

the greatest cause of atheism

stavropoleos

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

– Brennan Manning

(h/t: Chris Marlow)

photo credit: Creative Commons | fusion-of-horizons

the real Evangelical disaster…

49 Van Ness

The great evangelical disaster is that evangelicalism has become synonymous with Republicanism rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

– Rachel Held Evans (read more)

Rachel’s post is right on target with respect to the wearying drone of Evangelicals who equate “conservative” and “Evangelical” with “Republican” rather than anything to do with theology or the Scripture.  Both the political right and left have long since abandoned any sort of Judeo-Christian ethic in their legislation.  If you don’t believe me, then you aren’t reading past their platforms to anything they’ve actually voted for.

Sadly, the president of my seminary alma mater is the loudest voice in the room recently on this subject.

When will American Christians figure out that Christianity has everything to do with Christ and nothing to do with politics?

photo credit: Creative Commons | David Gallagher

poverty: God’s problem or ours?

The Family Shell - street, Bangkok

One of the most common popular objections to the existence of God has to do with the existence of suffering (or more broadly, evil) in the world.  If your God is so good, the objection goes, how could he possibly allow such suffering to exist or continue?  After my wife’s recent trip to minister in the slums of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, several internet readers have asked exactly the same question regarding the poverty, hardship, and suffering she witnessed there.

In all seriousness, I’d like to turn the question around a bit and ask it this way:

Is poverty God’s problem or ours?

If we step back and look at the problem of poverty, I think we will find the problem is not with God but with us.  Looking through the Old Testament, there are numerous provisions in the Torah concerned with providing for the poor, widowed, orphans, and foreigners in Israel.  Perhaps the best summary comes to us from the lips of Moses in Deuteronomy, where we read:

If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has.  Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart y when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’

Deuteronomy 15.7-11 (HCSB)

Time and time again, the Prophets indicted Israel for their lack of compassion against the poor in the land.  Amos is especially critical of the wealthy among Israel for continuing to stockpile their wealth at the expense of caring for the poor.  Over and over, the prophets pointed to the root of the problem.  It was neither the existence of poverty nor a lack of resources.  The problem was a land filled with people who simply cared more for themselves than they did for their neighbors.

In the New Testament, Jesus echoed Moses’ words and reminds us, “You will always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26.4, HCSB).  Again, the problem presented is neither the existence of poverty nor a scarcity of resources but a problem of the heart.  As many writers–most notably Richard Stearns–have pointed out, American Christians alone possess the wealth to virtually eliminate poverty in the world for the poorest of the poor.  We have the resources to provide clean water and basic health care to the entire population of the world.

The problem is not God.

The problem is not poverty.

The problem is not resources.

The problem is that we do not care enough to act.

Kyrie eleison…

photo credit: Creative Commons | Ronn aka “Blue” Aldaman

God in every detail

The sliding feeling

We can all see God in exceptional things, but it requires the growth of spiritual discipline to see God in every detail.

– Oswald Chambers

 

photo credit: Creative Commons | broo_am

on self importance, from Embracing Obscurity

The trouble with you and me and the rest of humanity is not that we lack self-confidence (as we’re told by the world) but that we have far too much self-importance. The thought of being just another of the roughly one hundred billion people to have ever graced this planet offends us—whether we realize it or not.

Anonymous, Embracing Obscurity

on ambition

Prayer is the language

I have to learn that the aim in life is God’s, not mine. God is using me from His great personal standpoint, and all He asks of me is that I trust Him, and never say—‘Lord, this gives me such heartache.’ To talk in that way makes me a clog. When I stop telling God what I want, He can catch me up for what He wants without let or hindrance. He can crumple me up or exalt me, He can do anything He chooses. He simply asks me to have implicit faith in Himself and in His goodness. Self-pity is of the devil; if I go off on that line I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world.

– Oswald Chambers

photo credit: Creative Commons | Leland Francisco

on temptation

Not Yet Another Failure

Temptations are granted to reveal our hidden passions, to be combated against, and thus heal our soul. They are also a sample of divine mercy. For this reason trust in God and ask for His help, in order to strengthen you in your fight. Hope in God never leads to despair. Temptations bring humility. God knows the resistance of each of us, and grants temptations according to the measure of our strength. However, we must make sure to be vigilant and careful, that we do not put ourselves into temptation.

Trust in God the Good, the Mighty, the Living, and He will lead you into rest. After the trial follows spiritual joy. The Lord monitors those who endure trials and tribulations for His love. Therefore do not become despondent and do not flinch.

– St. Nektarios of Aegina (via Mystagogy)

Temptations reveal our desires and are an opportunity to receive the grace of God in Christ.  How rarely do we view temptation this way!  Instinctively we all recognize the former, and in our mislead zeal to put on the veneer of perfection and demonstrate to others how much we ‘have it together’ this is a large measure of what frightens us so much about temptation.  “What if others find out what I really struggle with and what I’m really like?”

Let us not forget the latter, more important point.  Temptations are an opportunity to receive the grace and mercy of Christ to strengthen and sustain us in their midst.  They are opportunities, not to show how strong or mature we are, but to experience and demonstrate our utter dependence upon God.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Behrooz Nobakht

A Church of Mercy

(cross-posted from simplyxian.com)

Protestants, especially conservatives and/or Evangelicals, are often hesitant to champion social causes or acts of mercy…typically equating them with the ‘social gospel’ of the early 20th century and its associated liberal theology. The connection, however, is clearly unwarranted and unscriptural.  Hopefully that incorrect connection will soon fade away into memory as more and more Christians get involved in reaching out to help those in need, as Jesus did.

Richard Stearns’ Hole in Our Gospel is a powerful antidote to this kind of thinking.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  You won’t be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy.  While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true church, the example set by Catholicism in this respect is definitely humbling and worthy of others’ imitation.

read: A Church of Mercy

photo courtesy of stock.xchng

What Happens in Worship

Lutheran worship is primarily the proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. As we gather together for worship, God speaks to us in his Word. Through the preaching of his law he crushes us with the stark and painful reminder of our own sin and unworthiness; he causes us to tremble at his holiness and justice; he speaks to us his urgent call to repentance. But in that same time of worship, a gracious God speaks to us words of full and free forgiveness. He points us to Christ and to the cross where his sacrifice paid the price of our sin, removed our guilt, and opened the door to heaven itself. In that same time of worship, we poor miserable sinners kneel side by side and receive the same body and blood that were given and shed for us. We commune with our God and with each other. In that same setting of worship, we witness how the power of the Holy Spirit, working through nothing other than his Word and simple water, creates new life and faith in the hearts of children and adults as they are baptized. And even when we join our voices to praise God in our words and songs, that praise is always focused on what God has done for us in Christ, adding our voices of gospel proclamation to the voice of the shepherd God has called to serve us.

If that is what happens in Lutheran worship, if the proclamation of the gospel and the preaching of Christ crucified is the center of what happens in our churches, then our worship services are not only times when God is nourishing the faith of believers; worship services also become a time and place where true evangelism and outreach take place. It is in that kind of Christ-centered and cross-focused worship setting that people hear not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. It is then that people receive something effective and lasting—not the passing emotional high that soon fades outside the church doors, not the hollow recipes for happiness, worldly success, or outwardly godly living.

Mark Schroeder

from here

Book Review: The Voice New Testament

When I first heard about the Voice New Testament, I was excited and intrigued.  The idea of a rendition of Scripture written primarily to be heard excites me, because until very recently in history, Scripture was not read like a textbook but heard by the people of God during times of corporate worship.  At the same time, I was intrigued because the translation team included many individuals who were clearly qualified with respect to their academic credentials but who are not well-known as Bible translators.  Neither of these points is inherently good or bad–they just formed my initial reaction to hearing about the project.

After reading a great portion of the Voice New Testament, I concluded that there are two reasons I cannot recommend this translation / paraphrase (?) for study or general use.  First, the text contains many insertions within the biblical text of notes attempting to clarify the text’s meaning.  These are essentially footnotes embedded in the main body of the text.  Though italicized to indicate that they are not part of the text, their placement within the flow of the text could be misleading to readers, unintentionally elevating these comments to the same level as inspired Scripture.  The second reason I have against recommending the Voice is that, while billed as a dynamic translation, it really reads more like the Message, which I would consider to be a paraphrase versus a true dynamic translation (like the New Living Translation).  The translation team took lots of liberties with the text–ones I think go well beyond what is either needed or desirable to satisfy their charter of highlighting “the beauty of God’s communication to His people” to ensure “the voice of God is heard as clearly as when He first revealed His truth.”

In sum, while I admire the goals of the Voice, it is not a translation I can recommend.  If, in the future, a revision was made to address these concerns (and those raised by others), I would gladly revisit this edition, but until then I will not refer to it often in my devotions, preaching, or teaching.

You can find out more about The Voice on the publisher’s website (here) or on Amazon.com (here).

The Gift of Music

I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone…Next to the Word of God, music deserve the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions–to pass over the animals–which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found–at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate…what more effective means than music could you find?

…the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.

Martin Luther, LW 53:321, 323-324

“Scripture Does Not Speak of Christ” by Pr. Peters

Our understanding of the Word of God (especially with respect to its reading as part of liturgy, public worship, and private devotion)  is absolutely paramount to our theology of worship, both corporate and private.  I have never read a short piece on the theology of the Word that is as succinct yet robust as this one by Pr. Peters on his Pastoral Meanderings blog.  I have republished this post below in its entirety, but please let the reader be reminded, these are Pr. Peter’s words and not my own…I emphasize that lest anyone give me any credit for this magnificent piece:

Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian now Roman Catholic, made the relevant point that Scripture does not speak of Christ but speaks Christ. Now this is not argument over terminology or semantics. This is the essential catholic confession — the Word of God does not speak of something the way, for example, I may speak of something I know or have an opinion about. Scripture is God speaking. When Scripture speaks, we hear the voice of God.

For most of Protestantism Scripture has become a book of rules to be followed, a set of principles to inform how we reshape the world, a set of practical tools to better your life, or a road map to lead you from here to eternity. But that is just plain wrong. Scripture is the voice of God. Scripture is the discourse of God in human words. This Word is powerful and can do what it claims and keep all its promises. This Word has the power to call and gather the Church.

On Sunday morning we often treat the Word of God as if it were nothing more than a book of wise sayings, some of which may be practical enough and pointed enough to make a small difference in the ordinary and mundane of our world. We treat so casually what is essentially the Voice of God who speaks to us and is speaking to us in Scripture.

We act as if the gems of Bible study were the hints or conclusions reached from that study — like a school child reads the encyclopedia for things he or she can use in a paper that is due tomorrow. Bible study is important because it is time with God, it is the conversation in which God is the speaker to us and we who have ears tuned in faith can hear Him speaking. It is not what we learn from Bible study but what we learn in Bible study as a people gather to hear every word and as a people who know that this every word is important.

Nowhere is that more true than in worship — the Word of God predominates not because we have found it useful but because it is Christ speaking to us. In this respect liturgy is the first real context for us to hear Scripture — everything else flows from this assembly and is not in competition with it or can substitute for it — as it was for those who heard Scripture first from the voice of the apostles.

This is what we need to rediscover – the urgency, the immediacy of God’s voice in our midst. In response to that voice, we come, we listen, we hear, and we grow. The distasteful practice of cell phones and watch alarms going off in worship is a sign that we have not understood that Scripture is God’s voice speaking to us — or surely we would shut those things off. The strange practice of people moving in and out of the Sanctuary as the Scriptures are read and preached is a sign that we do not understand that Scripture is God’s living voice speaking to us or we would find a way to fit our bathroom needs around this holy and momentous conversation in which God is the speaker and initiates the dialog that brings forth faith in us and bestows upon us all the gifts of the cross and empty tomb.

Instead of burying our faces in bulletins to read, we would raise our heads to listen. I am convinced that the reading of Scripture is heard differently than the reading of Scripture from a service folder page. We don’t listen to each other with our heads buried in a booklet. We listen to each other by looking at the point where the voice is coming from and by learning to tune out the distractions so that we might hear what is said. This is the discipline that is so missing on Sunday morning.

All because we think of Scripture as a vehicle that delivers something to us instead of the thing that is delivered — the voice of God speaking grace and mercy, conviction and condemnation, redemption and restoration, death and life… Wisdom!! Attend!!

My Personal Psalter Project

The Psalms have always been central to the worship, liturgies, prayers, devotions, and songs of countless Christians across the centuries.  In the Psalter one can find cries of joy and pain, brokenness and rage, helplessness and confidence.  In other words, the voices in the Psalms are real, very real, and in their heart-felt transparency lies a great deal of their popularity and importance.  They teach us how to pray, how to grieve, how to rejoice–i.e., how to live as believers in the real world with its ups and down.

Here’s how Luther more eloquently summed up the great value of the Psalms in the believer’s life:

Every Christian who would abound in prayer and piety ought, in all reason, to make the Psalter his manual; and, moreover, it were well if every Christian so used it and were so expert in it as to have it word for word by heart, and could have it even in his heart as often as he chanced to be called to speak or act, that he might be able to draw forth or employ some sentence out of it, by way of a proverb. For indeed the truth is, that everything that a pious heart can desire to ask in prayer, it here finds Psalms and words to match, so aptly and sweetly, that no man—no, nor all the men in the world—shall be able to devise forms of words so good and devout. (from Luther’s 1545 Preface to the Psalter)

I love to read from the Psalms each day, but still I long to be more familiar with them than I am.  With this in mind, I began my Personal Psalter Project earlier this week.  I purchased a Moleskine notebook and have begun copying, by hand, one Psalm per day until I have copied all 150.  I am copying them from the New Living Translation, which is my favorite translation, but am taking advantage of the luxury of a single-column setup to take advantage of my own formatting, using different levels of indention to really make the parallelism stand out (similar to what is done in the excellent Psalter layout in God’s Word translation).  In addition, the extra space gives me room to make notes about Hebrew/LXX vocabulary, alternate translations, or personal thoughts.

I will post additional thoughts, as well as some pictures, as this project continues.

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Review of God’s Word Translation–the New Testament (Part 3)

In this third post in my multi-part review of God’s Word Translation (GW), I will take a look at the New Testament as translated in GW.  If you are not familiar with GW, please read my first post on the history and philosophy behind GW and my second post on the Old Testament in GW.

Overall Readability

As mentioned in my review of the Old Testament, GW has achieved excellent readability–balancing contemporary English style without breaking significantly from traditional English translations.  What I said about the Old Testament holds true for the New in that I would place the ‘feel’ of GW (anecdotally) somewhere between the NIV and NLT.  One thing I have noticed by spending time with this translation over the past couple of months is the consistent use of simple word choice and sentence construction.  These facets are discussed in the “Guide to God’s Word Translation” booklet I received from Baker, and after reading large portions of this translation I appreciate what the translators were trying to accomplish.  Additionally, some of the English and Evangelical colloquialisms found in other contemporary translations are absent from this translation.   Far from creating a ‘dumbed down’ translation with respect to vocabulary and grammar, GW would lend itself very well to use in teaching the English language or in an ESL church context.  I hope GW will be able to find a warm reception and be put to good use in this area.

The Gospels

The narrative and dialogue of the Gospels reads exactly how one would expect these genres to read.  The flow is very good, interrupted only by section/pericope breaks common to most translations.  The style in the dialogue sections reflects contemporary English, for example, in its use of contractions and lack of repeating ‘verily’/’truly’ phrases (which are very good Greek but very poor English).  As in the Old Testament, poetic sections (primarily quotes from the OT) are formatted with multiple levels of indentation to show the Hebraic use of parallelism, effectively pointing out to English readers a poetic device we are largely unaccustomed to using.  As a format note, all the of the editions of GW I have seen are black-letter editions.  I do not think any red-letter editions exist, which for many of us is a stylistic bonus.

The Epistles

The language and grammar of the Epistles also makes for a very readable translation, even in the very lengthy sentences of Paul and difficult Greek used by Peter.  As is customary in many English translations, very long Greek sentences are made into more manageable English sentences.  As I’ve seen throughout GW, the translation team has done a very good job overall crafting an accurate and readable English translation.

Non-Traditional Wording

In my review of the Old Testament, I pointed out three areas, both good and bad, where GW broke with long-standing tradition in the realm of English bible translation.  There are more examples of non-traditional vocabulary choices in the New Testament, several of which are worthy of note, either positively or negatively.  First, let’s look at some of what I consider to be good changes:

  • Instead of ‘repent,’ GW consistently uses some variation of ‘change the way you/they think and act.’  While this is a verbose translation of ‘metanoeo,’ it accurately defines the Greek word in terms familiar to contemporary English speakers.
  • Instead of ‘verily, verily’ or ‘truly, truly’ throughout the Gospels, GW uses ‘I can guarantee this truth.’  In sections where Jesus says ‘amen, amen’ repeatedly it can sound a bit mechanical, but it’s an improvement over either of the traditional renderings.
  • In keeping with other contemporary English translations, GW translates the standalone use of ‘christos’ as ‘Messiah’ rather than ‘Christ.’  ‘Iesous Christos’ is still translated traditionally as ‘Jesus Christ.’  Even though Messiah and Christ are synonyms, I prefer to have ‘christos’ translated as Messiah to clearly link OT promise with NT fulfillment.

There are also a few choices made by the translators that I don’t like:

  • GW tends to translate ‘trespass’ (‘opheilema’) and ‘sin’ (‘hamartia’) as ‘failure,’ which itself I think is a failure.  In the typical usage of those with whom I interact, ‘failure’ connotes an unintentional shortcoming of my best efforts rather than intentional defiance or rebellion.  While ‘failure’ can denote ‘trespass’ or ‘sin,’ I don’t find it used this way.
  • Similarly to the NIV and NLT, GW translates ‘sarx’ as ‘sinful nature’ rather than ‘flesh.’  Lots of ink has been spilled evaluating this choice, and I won’t add to it other than to say I really don’t like it.
  • Instead of ‘grace,’ GW consistently uses ‘kindness,’ which only partly misses the mark.  God’s grace to us isn’t just kindness but his ‘undeserved kindness’ toward sinful humanity.  Simply using ‘kindness’ weakens the impact of God’s grace (‘charis’).
  • The most problematic vocabulary choice made by GW, in my opinion, is the use of ‘God’s approval’ instead of ‘justify’ (dikaioo).  Justification is more than just God’s approval, which itself connotes God’s positive reaction to some work on humanity’s part.  Justification is our acquittal from sin, God’s pardon of us (in Christ) in spite of ourselves.  Considering this translation was done by a team that maintains that a proper understanding of justification is key to salvation, this choice is a real disappointment to me.

Overall

The New Testament is well done overall.  As with the Old Testament, the narrative is clear, the dialogue contemporary, and the poetry well-presented.  I love the single-column, black-letter text, both of which create an enjoyable reading experience.  Also similar to the OT, some of the non-traditional wording choices are helpful but some, especially the translation chosen for ‘grace’ and ‘justify’ are poorly done.  In fact, this last item is probably the one thing that keeps me from recommending God’s Word without caveat.  Hopefully, the folks at Baker will take note of these items and revise the text, which would make this a truly solid, wonderful translation…not that it’s far from that mark today.

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The Beautiful Cross

The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners.  The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God.  The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails on the cross on Golgotha.  As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life, and blessedness to all people.

On account of this, the cross is both holy and blessed!  Once nothing but a dry piece of wood, it was changed, like Aaron’s staff, into a green branch full of heavenly blossoms and fruit.  Once an instrument of torment for the punishment of sinners, it now shines in heavenly splendor for all sinners as a sign of grace.  Once the wood of the curse, it has now become, after the Promised Blessing for all people offered Himself up on it, a tree of blessing, an altar of sacrifice for the atonement, and a sweet-smelling aroma to God.  Today, the cross is still a terror–but only to hell.  It shines upon its ruins as a sign of the victory over sin, death, and Satan.  With a crushed head, the serpent of temptation lies at the foot of the cross.  It is a picture of eternal comfort upon which the dimming eye of the dying longingly looks, the last anchor of his hope and the only light that shines in the darkness of death.

– C.F.W. Walther (quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 622)

Adoption and Baptism: A Real-Life Illustration

Last night, my son and I were enjoying our nightly ritual of reading books and bible stories before bedtime.  The bible story we were reading was the birth of Jesus–yes, he’s in the Christmas spirit early–and we paused at the end on a picture of baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, Joseph and Mary.  As a good young boy is wont to do, he started asking questions:

“Who is that?” he asked, pointing at the baby.

“Baby Jesus,” I replied.

“Isn’t he God?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“And when he got big, he died on the cross, right?” he asked, pointing to his baptismal cross on the wall.

“Yes, you’re right,” I said.

“Why did I get baptized?” he asked again, stream of consciousness kicking into high gear.

“That’s a great question!” I told him.

At this point, I had to come up with an illustration of what baptism is all about and what God does in baptism.  For those who don’t know, we adopted our son from Ukraine a little over two years ago, when he was three.  Though he doesn’t remember a lot about when he was “a tiny baby,” he remembers many details about our initial visits at the orphanage, our days of playing with him in the orphanage before we could bring him home, and the adventurous trip back to Texas.  With those things in mind, our conversation continued…

“Remember when Mommy and I came to get you in Ukraine?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You were very little then, but we still loved you.  Could you have found us and come home all by yourself?”

“No way,” he said with a laugh.

“Well baptism is kind of like that. God comes to get us when we can’t come to him.”

“Oh!” he said as his eyes lit up with understanding.

“And now, you’re our son, right?” I asked.

“Yes, Daddy.”

“And just like you’re our child, you’re God’s child, because he came to get you just like we did.”

He paused for a minute and then said, “Jesus loves us a lot, right, Dad?”

“Yes he does,” I said with a smile. “Yes he does.”

The whole conversation was a joy, but it was most fantastic to watch my little one, who had never heard the name of Jesus just over two years ago, connect the dots in such a way as to realize–quite tangibly, since he remembers his baptism–how great is God’s love for us!

water_drop_causing_a_ripple

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Review of God’s Word Translation–the Old Testament (Part 2)

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In this second post in a multi-part review of God’s Word Translation (GW), we will take a look at the Old Testament as translated in GW.  If you are not familiar with GW, please read my first post on the history and philosophy behind GW.

Text Formatting

As far as I know, the text layout in all editions of GW is identical: single-column, black lettering with textual footnotes.  I have not seen an edition that includes cross-references, and the God’s Word Study Bible is the only edition I find in the catalog that includes them.  With respect to readability, this layout is fantastic. The single-column layout allows narrative text to read like a book instead of a technical manual and allows poetry to be formatted in such a way as to clearly bring out the parallelism so important and prominent in Hebrew poetry.  The only thing I find distracting are the section titles, but these appear in just about every edition of every translation, so this is nothing specific to GW.  Because of the choices made in the text layout, GW gets high marks for formatting and readability.

Overall Readability

In my opinion, GW has achieved very good readability without sacrificing readability or breaking markedly from traditional English bible translations.  While there are certainly places in every translation where one could suggest stylistic revisions for one reason or another, overall GW is a comfortable read falling somewhere in my totally unscientific scale of readability between the NIV and the NLT.  In other words, someone familiar with the NIV or translations leaning more toward ‘formal equivalence’ may find that GW sounds more ‘familiar’ than the NLT.  This isn’t necessarily good or bad, merely my attempt to place GW in the context of versions many readers are more familiar with.  If you are curious to read several passages from GW side-by-side with other versions, check out Joel’s series of reviews on his blog.  Since he has provided so many examples, I do not intend to provide more.

Narrative

The narrative in GW reads as one would hope narrative would–smoothly.  While I haven’t read through all of the OT in GW, I have enjoyed what I have read.  Consistent with its goal of readability without oversimplification, the narrative portions sometimes shorten sentence length over what is found in the original languages, though translators have aimed not to shorten sentences for the sake of shortening them if such edits compromise or blur their meaning.  The narrative also tries to avoid piling up clauses or prepositional phrases, both of which create more difficult reading.

Poetry

One of the most important literary devices in Hebrew poetry is parallelism (see this great Wikipedia article on Biblical Poetry for a primer on the subject).  Especially over against rhyme, meter, rhythm or other devices that are not readily apparent in any translation from Hebrew to English, understanding parallelism helps provide significant insight into understanding the significance of the Psalms, songs, and some prophetic sections in the Old Testament.  The poetic sections of GW are one place, in my opinion, where the editors have really made good use of the additional real-estate allowed by having a single-column format.  The wider, single-column layout allowed editors to use multiple levels of indentation to group together multiple parallel phrases nested within a section of poetry.  While this indentation is not original to the Hebrew, it definitely allows English speakers whose poetry uses parallelism less than rhyme to easily (and visually) see its structure and better understand its meaning.  I have seen no other single-column layout that so effectively utilizes indentation to organize and present poetry.  This is one area where GW really shines!

Non-Traditional Wording

In its attempt to remove easily misunderstood technical language (see my first review), GW breaks with translation tradition in some places.  This is more apparent in the New Testament, as we’ll see, but there are several important areas where non-traditional wording is used in the Old Testament.  One significant departure from traditional English translations is the use of ‘instruction’ as the translation for the Hebrew ‘torah’.  While ‘instruction’ is almost the universal lexical definition of ‘torah,’ most English translations routinely translate it as ‘law,’ and even non-technical commentaries are quick to point out this important difference.  Making this change was an excellent choice.

Another traditional phrase appearing in the Old Testament is “Lord of Hosts” (‘Yahweh Sabaoth’).  Here ‘hosts’ is a reference to angelic beings, i.e. the hosts of heaven.  It is an archaic phrase that few Christians are truly familiar with and even fewer, if any, non-Christians would implicitly understand.  GW has chosen to translate this phrase “Lord of Armies,” which I think is unfortunate, as there is no explanation that these armies of the armies of heaven and not the armies of men or earthly politics.  There is room for significant misunderstanding here, in my opinion, and translating this “Lord of Heaven’s Armies,” as the NLT has done, is a much better choice.

A final non-traditional translation choice was made in Deuteronomy 6.4.  This verse, commonly known as the ‘shema,’ is an important part of daily prayer for the Jews.  Traditionally this verse is translated as, “Hear, O Israel:  The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (ESV), which serves to emphasizes the unity of God.  In the context of a polytheistic culture and God’s constant warnings against worshiping other Gods, Dt 6.4 is better understood as Israel’s ‘pledge of allegiance’ to Yahweh.  As such, GW (similarly to the NLT) translates this verse, “Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God.  The LORD is the only God.”  Again, in my opinion, this was an excellent choice by the translators.

Overall

Overall, the Old Testament of GW is very well done.  The narrative is crystal clear and the poetic sections are wonderfully presented.  While not all aspects of non-traditional word choices are necessarily more helpful than traditional English renderings, in two areas at least, I find the changes refreshing and, quite honestly, more accurate.

Stay tuned for our look next time at the New Testament!

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All Saints’ Day?

For many Christians, especially those whose traditions do not observe the church calendar, the mere mention of “All Saints’ Day” sounds eerily Roman Catholic or taboo.  But what exactly is this feast day (i.e., church celebration) all about?  I have found no better short explanation than that in the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

This feast is the most comprehensive of the days of commemoration, encompassing the entire scope of that great cloud of witnesss with which we are surrounded (Heb 12.1).  It holds before the eyes of faith that great multitude which no man can number: all the saints of God in Christ–from every nation, race, culture, and language–who have come ‘out of the great tribulation…who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Rev 7.9, 14).  As such, it sets before us the full height and depth and breadth and length of our dear Lord’s gracious salvation (Eph 3.17-19).  It shares with Easter a celebration of the resurrection, since all those who have died with Christ Jesus have also been raised with Him (Rom 6.3-8).  It shares with Pentecost a celebration of the ingathering of the entire Church catholic [i.e., 'universal church' not 'Roman Catholic church']–in heaven and on earth, in all times and places–in the one Body of Christ, in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Just as we have all been called to the one hope that belongs to our call, ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph 4.4-6).  And the Feast of All Saints shares with the final Sundays of the Church Year an eschatalogical focus on the life everlasting and a confession that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom 8.18).  In all of these emphases, the purpose of this feast is to fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, that we might not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12.2-3).

Walther on the Prosperity Gospel

god_richesSadly, much of American Christianity is infatuated with the notion that, once I become a Christian, then God will order everything in my life such that I will be showered with material blessings galore–health, wealth, and prosperity of all kinds–even a hundredfold byond that which I give to the Lord.  The litany of charlatans posing as ‘pastors’ who proclaim such business is long and distinguished.  C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of American Lutheranism disagrees.  First he takes us to the words of Scripture…

So be careful how you live.  Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.  Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. (Eph 5.15-16, NLT)

Then Walther goes on to explain that this notion couldn’t be more untrue.

With the words in [Ephesians 5], Saint Paul warns all Christians that, in this life, they should never count on good, peaceful, and comfortable days, either for themselves or for their faith.  Instead, they should expect to exerience evil, dangerous, and woeful days.  Where Christ is, there is also the cross.  Therefore, as soon as a person has turned to Christ, he cannot think everything will go well with him as a child of God’s grace.  Rather, he must expect that the cross will now be his inseperable companion until his death. (God Grant It, 813)

His words are a far cry from those you’ll hear on any given Sunday around the country in some of America’s largest congregations and on TV; however, the words of Walther reflect the cruciform nature of the Christian life.  “Where Christ is, there is also the cross.”  Let these words of warning be also words of encouragement, for where the cross is, there is also the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Thanks be to God!

Review of God’s Word Translation–History and Philosophy (Part 1)

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The folks at Baker Books were kind enough to send me a couple editions of God’s Word Translation (GW) to read and review.  This translation has been around for over fifteen years, but until getting picked up by Baker in 2008 hasn’t gotten much exposure or widespread publicity.  Because of that, my intent is to look at this translation across several posts to try and give it a thorough review for those who may not know much about it or even have heard of it at all.  My reviews will take a different approach than Joel Watts’, who is also in the process of writing several reviews of GW on his blog.  If you’re interested in seeing how GW compares to other translations (in parallel), be sure and check out his fine series.

History

Technically, the translation known now as GW had its beginning in 1982, when God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society formed to update a translation known as An American Translation, which was translated by a small group of conservative Lutheran scholars.  Over time, this work took on a new direction and ended up being a completely new bible translation–still translated primarily by this core group of Lutherans but utilizing reviewers from a variety of Christian backgrounds, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and others.  After several revisions and continual work, God’s Word was introduced to the marketplace in 1995.  Since then, the text has remained unchanged and publishing has passed from World Bible Publishers to Green Key Books (2003) and finally to Baker Books (2008).  [More information and history can be found here]

Translation Philosophy

(Note: The quotes from the following two sections come from the pamphlet “A Guide to God’s Word Translation”)

The translation philosophy espoused by GW is called Closest Natural Equivalence (CNE).  In an area where most of the debate goes back and forth between literal v. dynamic equivalence, form v. functional equivalence, or word-for-word v. thought-for-thought translation, CNE seeks to satisfy three related goals:

  1. Provide readers with a meaning in the target language (here, English) that is equivalent to that of the source language
  2. Express that meaning naturally, in a way that a native English speaker would read or write
  3. Express the meaning with a style that preserves many of the characteristics of the source text

hebrew-detailAs a point of comparison with other major bible translations, while not calling their translation philosophies CNE, both the New Living Translation (NLT) and Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) use similar approaches.  Why this approach?  Quite simply, there are concerns with either of the predominant two paradigms that make some sort of mediating position not only necessary but desirable.  Regarding the former, literal translation philosophy:

Form-equivalent translations adjust the grammar and syntax of the source language text only enough to produce a reasonable recognizable and understandable English translation.  Form-equivalent translation results in an English text that is a combination of English words, some English syntax, and some Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek syntax.

In other words, as my one of my Old Testament professors used to say about the NASB and the ESV, “Great Hebrew, terrible English.”

There are also pitfalls with taking a solely dynamic approach to translation:

While function equivalence theory of translation has the proper focus [of accurately conveying meaning in the target language], in practice it has produced English translations that have lost some of the source texts’ meaning.

In sum, the goal of CNE as advocated by GW, NLT, and HCSB is to maintain the delicate balance between a rigidly-literal rendering of the text that fails to communicate clearly in English and a highly-dynamic rendering that omits characteristics of the source language that are important to the meaning of a given passage.

Technical Theological Language

One important question translation committees have to wrestle with and answer is how they will approach translating words associated with theological concepts.  Typically, English translations use the traditional renderings that have been used for centuries, some going back so far as to be borrowed from Jerome’s Latin translation of the bible (the Vulgate):

While these words continue to be used by theologians and even by many Christians, the meanings that speakers assign to them in everyday use do not match the meanings of the Hebrew or Greek words they are intended to translate. The words have become jargon–words with specialized meanings often poorly understood by nonspecialists.

As Ed Stetzer pointed out on Twitter recently, “If you can learn to order at Starbucks, then you can learn theological language at church.” I completely agree, and while I would suggest that retaining words like covenant, justify, propitiation, righteous, and others in our theological teaching, preaching, and discussions is a good thing, it is difficult for me to suggest that retaining these terms in a bible translation is helpful considering how differently these terms are used in contemporary language (if they are used at all!).

The GW translators did not make this decision arbitrarily but based upon research in local congregations:

 

To determine how English speakers understand a few key theological terms, God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society undertook a survey of churchgoing lay people.  Of five theological terms tested, no term was understood correctly by a majority of the respondents.  That is, a majority of the respondents did not give a definition that matched the primary meaning of the underlying Greek word…The survey results for covenant (40 percent gave acceptable answers) were better than for the other words included in the bible society’s survey.  For instance, only 10 percent of the respondents gave a correct meaning for the Greek word dikaioo when asked to define justify.

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In theory, I am totally at ease with the decision to use words more easily and correctly understood by contemporary English speakers.  I will examine and evaluate some of the specific usages in GW in future reviews on the OT and NT, because I find some weaknesses in the words chosen in some places.

So we’re off and running on our look at God’s Word Translation!  Over the course of the next few reviews, I will begin to take a look at the details of this translation, including formatting, word choice, translation style, etc.  Hopefully this is enough to whet your appetite to come back and read more about this relatively unknown translation.

Bonhoeffer on Church Growth

hillsongI’m no expert on the theology of the Church Growth Movement (or whatever clever moniker it goes by these days), but I can’t help but be disappointed at the continual emphasis on church growth (i.e., numbers) that is so rampant within Evangelicalism.  Everywhere you turn there are books, seminars, web sites, blogs, etc. dedicated to the next big thing (read ‘gimmick’) that will draw folks in.  Some have argued that the phenomenon of the ‘mega-church’ is on the wane, something I haven’t noticed around Houston, but regardless of whether this may be the case, the infatuation with growing larger churches continues continues to infect much of American Christianity.  At it’s core, I suspect the whole thing is largely about self-centered ‘pastors’ trying to build congregations, buildings, and programs to compete with the size of their own egos.

For those, however, who may be truly and sincerely trying to grow the size of their congregations for the glory of Christ and to really reach out to others with the gospel, one thing still jumps out at me from all the ‘experts’–church growth happens because of something we do.  That something may be related to preaching style, worship style, small groups, large groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, children’s church, Sunday School, or (insert issue of interest here).  Whatever it is, even as we ‘give God the glory’ for the increase of our congregation, at the core, that growth is understood to result from our work, our efforts, our programs, our gimmick.

Bonhoeffer disagrees.  He realizes, rightly, that Christ promised to build his church.  Such growth is his work, not ours.  As he writes:

If is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church.  No man builds the church but Christ alone.  Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.  We must confess–he builds.  We must proclaim–he builds.  We must pray to him–that he may build.

We do not know his plan.  We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down.  It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction.  It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church:  you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me.  Do not meddle in what is my province.  Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.  But do it well.  Pay no heed to views and opinions.  Don’t ask for judgments.  Don’t always be calculating what will happen.  Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge!  Church, stay a church!  But church, confess, confess, confess!  Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are.  Christ builds.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from No Rusty Swords, as cited in TDP, p. 841)

Justification in the NLT–A Final Look

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Over the past few months, I’ve been musing here and there about the way the NLT presents the doctrine of justification, especially in the Pauline epistles.  To be precise, I have been working through my understanding of the way the NLT presents the causality (i.e. by/through faith) versus the instrumentality (i.e. because of faith) of justification.  Two recent exercises have led me to believe that, on the main, I’ve been making a mountain out of a molehill.

First, I finally spent some time reviewing the notes and articles in the NLT Study Bible for the passages I listed in previous posts.  Most notably, I read through the article titled, “Righteousness By Faith,” which appears in Galatians.  This article unequivocably articulates the doctrine of justification by faith and says, “There is nothing people can or need to do. Only Christ could do—and has done—what must be done to make people acceptable to God. So we should simply receive his gift, gratefully thank him for what he has done for us, and trust in him” (emphasis mine).

Second, I talked with friends, co-workers, church members, and members of my Guard unit about the readings as presented in the NLT.  Essentially, I asked them to explain to me their understanding of the passages.  Though anecdotal, without exception, the people I talked to were able to articulate justification by faith because of Christ’s work on our behalf.

In sum, I am coming to think that my anxiety about how the NLT presents justification stemmed from my desire for more precision than the average reader brings to the text.  ‘By,’ ‘through,’ and ‘because’…for many folks, though not all…are essentially synonymous terms in the everyday usage of the language.  In preaching or teaching through the few passages where the NLT says ‘because of faith’ I will continue to be careful to articulate the instrumentality of faith over against the causality of faith in justification.  Will I be driving home a point that some or many will think is unnecessary?  Perhaps.  If it avoids confusion for anyone, however, it will be worth it.

Many continued thanks to the NLT team for a fantastic translation that I have used as my primary preaching and teaching bible for over a year now…with absolutely no regrets!  May God continue to use this translation to build his church!

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Justification in the NLT–A Broader Look

It has been over two months since my initial post on my struggles with justification by faith as presented by the New Living Translation, Second Edition (NLTse) in the book of Galatians.  In that time, I have broadened my reading to include most of the other NT references to justification traditionally rendered ‘by faith,’ as opposed to the NLTse rendering ‘because of faith.’  Specifically, I narrowed my list down to following 17 main occurrences (37 if you could numerous repetition in Heb 11):

  • Rom 1.17OpenBible
  • Rom 3.28
  • Rom 4.16
  • Rom 5.1
  • Rom 9.30
  • Rom 9.32
  • Rom 11.20
  • Gal 2.16
  • Gal 3.7
  • Gal 3.8
  • Gal 3.11
  • Gal 3.22
  • Gal 3.25
  • Gal 5.5
  • Heb 10.38
  • Heb 11.3 ff (20 total occurrences in chapter 11)
  • Jas 2.24

Of these 17 verses, the NLTse translates 12 of them ‘by faith,’ in agreement with the traditional Protestant understanding that by the instrument of faith we grasp hold of the justifying work of Jesus Christ, the cause of our justification.  The other five, however, are translated ‘because of faith,’ making our faith–not Christ’s work–the effective cause of justification.  For the statisticians and fellow engineers among us, that comes out 71% overall.  Looking book by book, which I think is fair way to approach it given the way books were assigned and translated by the translation team, this comes out to 75% for Romans, 57% for Galatians, 100% for Hebrews, and 100% for James.

Interestingly (to me anyway), none of these passages were changed from the original release of the NLT to the NLTse…unless I misread something in my quick study.  It surprises me that a doctrine as central as justification by faith would not receive more scrutiny by the translation and review team, especially where the NLT has departed so dramatically from every other major translation, historic or contemporary.  Let me restate my original three concerns:

  1. Again and again, the NLT translates the Greek preposition ἐκ as “because” where it is traditionally rendered “by” in almost every other English translation through the last 400 years
  2. Intentionally or not, the NLT reading makes faith causative in justification, i.e. we are justified because of our faith, instead of understanding faith as the instrument by which we receive Christ’s merits, i.e. justified by means of our faith.
  3. The NLT reading opens the door to the synergistic idea that our faith is itself meritorious, a “good work” that is at least partly responsible for our salvation.

I still love the NLT and use it as my primary preaching and teaching bible.  It speaks the language of the folks with whom I live and work–at NASA, in the Guard, and in my neighborhood.  I am concerned, however, about how justification is sometimes presented.   Does anyone else share my concerns?  Is anyone cautious about the NLT for these reasons?  Has it ever been discussed to edit these passages in future releases?

I’d love to know!  I’d love to discuss it!

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Walther on Justifying Faith

One month after writing my initial post on the topic of justification in Galatians as presented in the NLT and ESV, I came across this reading by C.F.W. Walther this morning.  For those who may not be familiar with Walther, he was one of the founders and first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see here for more).  Specifically, Walther addresses the question of justification ‘because’ (NLT) or ‘by’ (ESV et al) faith…the initial issue that got me writing in the first place.  In this sermon, he points out a common misconception of justification–in his mind–and counters with his understanding of the biblical teaching.  He says:

Many think that a person is righteous before God through faith and nothing else, since faith is a good work and a glorious virtue.  They maintain that a person makes himself acceptable and pleasing to God by his faith, which cleanses his heart, unites him with Christ, and brings forth the fruit of good works.

It is true that faith has all of these glorious qualities, but it is false to say this makes a person righteous before God.  Scripture never says a person is righteous before God because of or on account of his faith.  Instead, he is righteous through faith.  Faith, then, is not the cause of our justification but only its instrument.  It is the means by which we receive righteousness from God.

Faith does not make us righteous before God because it is such a good work and such a beautiful virtue.  Precisely the opposite is the case.  As [Romans 4.16] informs, faith makes a person righteous before God because righteousness can be obtained solely by grace.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp. 574-5)

Walther, then, understands justification in the traditional Protestant sense, as “the means by which we receive righteousness from God” not the reason we are considered/declared to be righteous.  I’m still struggling with the NLT rendering in Galatians and reading from my ESV a bit more these days.

Has anyone given this any more thought since last time? (crickets…grin)

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The End Times?

So…are we in the end times?  What do you think?

According to the testimony of the Word of God, the closer we come to the end of all things, the greater the world’s security and lust will become.  As the terrible hour nears, an hour in which all things visible and all the glory of the earth will suddenly be swallowed up, more and more people will, as the prophecies of Scripture inform us, immerse themselves in worldly good.  The more signs God sends to His children, warning that the world will soon be destroyed and the Judge of the living and the dead will soon appear in the clouds of the heavens, the less people will believe them.  Everything will continue secure and carefree, as if the world were to stand forever and the Last Day were nothing more than a fairy tale.

Our present age seems to fit perfectly the descriptions of the last days found in Scripture.  All of the signs in nature, in the kingdoms of the world, and in the Church which, according to biblical prophecy, must precede the end of all things, have taken place during the past centuries and especially in recent years.  By the most terrible events, God has loudly proclaimed the imminent destruction of the world.  But what has been the response?  With each passing year, the world sinks deeper and deeper into false security.  At no time has the notion of the Last Day appeared to be more laughable than it is now.  Almost universally, people have denied the Christ who has already come, and they greet with even greater mockery the preaching that says He will return soon.  Even those who believe God’s Word consider those who preach the nearness of Christ’s return to be fanatics.  We have obviously entered that midnight hour when even the wise virgins sleep.

What does Peter say in cautioning Christians about such a time?  He says, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”  This does not mean that when the end of all things is near, Christians should no longer make use of the world, that they should deprive the body in self-chosen spirituality and humility and not provide for the necessities of the flesh.  Nor does it mean they are not allowed to rejoice in the bodily refreshment God gives them in this last time.  No, says the apostle, we should be serious and watchful only in our prayers.  Even in the nearness of the Last Day, we can eat and drink, but we should not weigh down our hearts in these pursuits.  We can like something in this world, but we must be prepared to sacrifice it readily to God.  We can have and continue to accumulate gold and silver, but we should not attach our heart to them, not rely upon them, and not mourn when we lose them.  We can build dwellings for ourselves, but they must be considered as lodgings for the night from which we will set out on the following morning (in other words, we must always prefer to go to the house of our heavenly Father than cling to our earthly abodes).  We can continue to plant and sow in the face of the Last Day, but we must be prepared not to reap the harvest, if that is what the Lord desires.  we can also care about the future, but only in such a way that our heart does not become burdened with worry.  We are serious and watchful in prayer when our heart is not trapped by any earthly thing.  It must always be free to be lifted up to God in prayer.  In the midst of the things, business, cares, goods, and pleasures of this world, our deepest desire must be for salvation and heaven.  We must seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  And we must pass through this world like strangers and pilgrims, pausing here and there to rest and refresh ourselves, but soon thereafter hastening on toward our heavenly goal.  Our entire life must be, as Luther expressed, an eternal Lord’s Prayer in which our principal desire is for God to deliver us from evil.  And we may add, “Come, Lord Jesus, take us out of this evil world, and take us to Yourself.”
(C.F.W. Walther, God Grant It, 445-447)

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Justifying Faith? Luther on the Bronze Snake…

My recent post on justification by faith in Galatians has sparked some good conversation here, on Twitter, and via email…but it all begs the question, “What is this justifying faith in Christ?”  Not surprisingly, Luther asks and answer the question beautifully, illustrating it with the bronze snake in the wilderness:

Some people imagine that faith is a quality that sticks to the heart on its own, with or without Christ.  This is a dangerous error.  Christ should be placed directly before our eyes so that we see and hear nothing apart from him and believe that nothing is closer to us than Christ.  For he doesn’t sit idly in heaven but is continually present in us.  He is working and living in us, for Paul says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20).  He also says that you “have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3.27).  Therefore, faith is an unswerving gaze that looks on Christ alone.  He is the conqueror of sin and death and the one who gives us righteousness, salvation, and eternal life.

This is beautifully illustrated by the story of the bronze snake, which points to Christ (Jn 3.14).  Moses commanded the Israelites, who had been bitten in the desert by poisonous snakes, to look at this bronze snake with an unswerving gaze.  Those who did so were healed, simply by steadily gazing at the snake alone.  In contrast, others who didn’t obey Moses looked at their wounds instead of the snake and died.  So if you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing by grasp Christ in faith and say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me.  In his wound and death, I see my sin.  In his resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil.  I see righteousness and eternal life as well.  I want to see and hear nothing except him.”  This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe. (26:356)

Amen.

Take that, all who accuse Luther of disparaging the Old Testament (grin).

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Justification in Galatians–Struggles with the NLT

Bible page photoLet me start by saying I’m a huge fan of the New Living Translation and have used it regularly, even if not as my primary bible for teaching/preaching, since shortly after its debut in the mid-90s.  Yes, even after pre-ordering my ESV back in 2001 (my primary bible for almost seven years), being shunned by ESV-only seminary types for years at Southern, and feeling indecisive about the whole formal v. dynamic equivalence bit…I still loved the NLT so much so that toward the end of last year I switched to it exclusively for preaching and teaching and relegated my ESV to the #2 spot.

(Perhaps I’ll write sometime about the reasons I made the jump, but that’s another post for another day.)

Today I write because I’m troubled by how the NLT renders some key verses on justification in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  By way of background, I should say that I’ve always looked to Galatians as ‘the’ treatment on justification by faith in the bible and, with Luther, I view justification as ‘the’ doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  With that in mind, my heart sank when reading through Galatians this weekend and realizing that the NLT makes faith the cause of our justification as opposed to the instrument of our justification.  Here is an excerpt from Galatians 3, the NLT in parallel with the ESV (the emphasis, of course, is mine):

New Living Translation (NLT) English Standard Version (ESV)
1 Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. 1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.
2 Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
3 How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain?
5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ. 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith
6 In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” 6 just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness?
7 The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
8 What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.” 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, In you shall all the nations be blessed.
9 So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith. 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Some thoughts…

  1. Again and again, the NLT translates the Greek preposition ἐκ as “because” where it is traditionally rendered “by,” as shown in the ESV (NB, almost every other translation, contemporary or otherwise, follows the ESV here)
  2. Intentionally or not, the NLT reading makes faith causative in justification, i.e. we are justified because of our faith, instead of understanding faith as the instrument by which we receive Christ’s merits, i.e. justified by means of our faith.
  3. The NLT reading opens the door to the synergistic idea that our faith is itself meritorious, a “good work” that is at least partly responsible for our salvation.

So how does this stand in relation to a Reformational understanding of justification by faith?  Here are some excerpts from classic Systematics texts or confessions in the Reformed, Lutheran, and contemporary Evangelical veins (again, the emphasis is mine):

  • Louis Berkhof (Reformed):  “Scripture never says we are justified dia ten pistin, on account of faith.  This means that faith is never represented as the ground of our justification.”
  • Wayne Grudem (Evangelical): “Scripture says that we are justified ‘by means of’ our faith, understanding faith to be the instrument through which justification is given to us, but not at all an activity that earns us merit or favor with God.”
  • Book of Concord, Epitome of the Formula of Concord (Lutheran): “We believe, teach, and confess that faith alone is the means and instrument whereby we lay hold of Christ, and thus in Christ of that righteousness which avails before God, for whose sake this faith is imputed to us for righteousness”

It would seem here that the NLT’s translation is at odds with the traditional, Protestant understanding of God’s means of justification.  This saddens me a great deal and surprises me, given the NLT translation team for Galatians (one of whom I studied under at seminary and who I know firmly believes in justification by faith).

I’m looking for some interaction here, good readers…talk to me!

  • Do you think I’m making much of nothing?
  • Is my reading of the NLT not a plain, straightforward reading of the translation?
  • Is the NLT’s rendering here a deal-breaker for teaching justification by faith?

Update (6.3) — after being prompted by several of you, I emailed Dr. Tom Schreiner, who was on the NLT translation team for Galatians.  Part of his reply is included in the comments here.

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The God Who Uses Means, Part 2

My last post took a quick look at God’s providential use of means in the life of Israel during the wilderness wandering and in our lives each day over against idleness in the name of ‘faith.’  My point there was that we mustn’t use faith as an excuse for inaction when God has clearly provided means by which to accomplish his promises.  On the contrary, in faith, we utilize these plain, ordinary means God has graciously given us instead of expecting (or dare I say demanding) God to respond through some extraordinary means.

Is this a real shift in thinking for us?  For many of us it is not.  For some, however, especially in the Word-Faith movement, this might be a huge shift in understanding.  While I appreciate their openness to God’s extraordinary means, i.e. miracles, there is much in the movement that is deeply troubling–from the pragmatic problem of expecting  God to heal by miracle in lieu of seeking medical care to the theological problem of turning God into a jinn/genie at our beck and call.  While God certainly can and does use extraordinary means, they are just that, extra-ordinary.

Back to my focus…more from Luther on God’s use of means, plain and ordinary, to accomplish his will:

We aren’t supposed to question if God in his unchangeable wisdom is willing to help us and give us what we need.  Instead, we should say with conviction, “I believe that God will take care of me, but I don’t know his plan.  I don’t know exactly how he’s going to fulfill his promise.”

So we must take advantage of the opportunities we have at hand.  We have to earn our money through hard work and diligence.  In order to stay alive, we have to have milk, food, clothes, and so on.  This means we have to cultivate the fields and harvest the crops.  Providing for ourselves is a God-given responsibility.  We can’t use God’s promise to take care of us as an excuse for not working diligently.  That would be wrong.  God doesn’t want us to be lazy and idle.  He tells us in Genesis, “By the sweat of your brow you will ear your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken” (Gen 3.19).  He also says of the ground, “It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (v.18).

The Lord is saying, “I promise that I will take care of you and give you food.  But to the best of your ability, I want you to take advantage of the opportunities I have made available to you.  Otherwise, you will be testing me.  However, if you are in need and have nothing available to you, at that time I will take care of you and give yo food in a miraculous way.  But keep this in mind: if any opportunities aren’t available to you, don’t forget that I am the one who gave them to you so that you would be able to take care of yourselves.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 7:219)

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The God Who Uses Means

hands_holding_worldLast night during family devotions, we studied Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4).  As we were reading and discussing this passage, I saw that the NLT Study Bible contains the following note regarding Jesus’ first temptation, “Israel complained constantly about hunger in the wilderness, but Jesus depended on God’s strength to sustain him.”  While I agree with what the writer says in contrasting Israel and Jesus, if not careful, one could take this notion of God’s providence to the extreme and arrive at a completely unbiblical passivity.  Such thinking goes well beyond any scriptural description of providence and preservation into the realm of a radically unscriptural fatalism and determinism.

Our faith in God and his providential care for us should give us great comfort in the face of any and all situations.  We mustn’t let our ‘faith’ paralyze us or lead us to inaction where God has provided a clear avenue to accomplish his ends.  In other words, we must realize that God is a god who uses means, both in the ‘big things’ and in the ‘little.’  As Luther writes:

Those who assume God will take care of everything and don’t think it’s important to make use of what’s available should carefully note this example [of Rebekah and Jacob in Gen 27].  These kinds of people sometimes don’t take any action, because they believe that if something is meant to happen, then it will happen with or without their help.  They even put themselves in unnecessary danger, expecting God to protect them because of his promises.

But these kinds of thoughts are sinful, because God wants you to use what you have available and make the best of your opportunities.  He wants to accomplish his will through you.  For example, he gave you a father and mother, even though he could have created you and fed you without them.  This means that in your everyday life, you have the responsibility to work.  You plow, plant, and harvest, but God is the one who provides the outcome.

If you stopped giving a baby milk, reasoning that the baby could live without food if the baby were meant to live, then you would be fooling yourself and sinning.  God has given mothers breasts to nurse their babies.  He could easily feed children without milk if he chose to.  But God wants you to use the resources he has provided.

So we plan diligently and labor vigorously, all the while knowing that our Heavenly Father is working his will in and through our efforts.  “So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters.  Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens” (Jas 1.16-17, NLT)

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A Communion Hymn–”What Is This Bread?”

Last Supper

This Maundy Thursday we sang a new Communion hymn titled, “What Is This Bread?” (LSB 629).  They copyright on the song is 1991, which is very new in our LCMS circle.  To put it into perspective a bit for some of you uber-contemporary folks, this hymn is across the page from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas dated in the late 13th century.  Anyway, this is a great hymn, with a beautiful tune and lyrics that teach a wonderfully rich, unashamedly Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper:

What Is This Bread?

What is this bread?
Christ’s body risen from the dead:
This bread we break,
This life we take,
Was crushed to pay for our release.
O taste and see–the Lord is peace.

What is this wine?
The blood of Jesus shed for mine;
The cup of grace
Brings His embrace
Of life and love until I sing!
O taste and see–the Lord is King.

So who am I,
That I should live and He should die
Under the rod?
My God, my God,
Why have You not forsaken me?
O taste and see–the Lord is free.

Yet is God here?
Oh, yes! By Word and promise clear,
In mouth and soul
He makes us whole–
Christ, truly present in this meal.
O taste and see–the Lord is real.

Is this for me?
I am forgiven and set free!
I do believe
That I receive
His very body and His blood.
O taste and see–the Lord is good.

There are many wonderfully rich truths taught in this short hymn.  In fact, one could use it as a great catachetical tool to teach the basics of a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament.

As we were taking Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening, however, I was struck by a line in the third verse, “My God, my God, why have You not forsaken me?”  It is a subtle twist on Jesus’ words from the cross and Psalm 22…and it echoes the recurring sentiment of my sinful heart.

There is no direct reply in the verses that follow, which is fine, because the sin-burdened heavy heart does not need a theological treatise on God’s presence with us.  What follows is better–the promises of God, through the Word, that he is both ever-present with us and that we are forgiven and freed from our sins.  Amen.  Thanks be to God!

The Future of the Lutheran Church

If the Lutheran Church has a future, it will be as the Lutheran Church. It will not be as imitation Baptists, Presbyterians, or anything else. If people are to become, remain, and rejoice in being Lutheran, it is because they understand the distinctively Lutheran way of being Christian. Being Lutheran is an evangelical catholic and catholic evangelical way of being in unity with the entire Church of Christ.  The present state of American Lutheranism is not just “not satisfactory.” It is a sickness unto death. The alternative is not beating the drums to revive flagging spirits, nor is it to move evangelism a few notches up on the bureaucratic agenda.   The alternative is renewal — theological, pastoral, sacramental, catechetical.  The alternative is to be something that others might have some reason to join.

Richard John Neuhaus, 1986 (quoted in Forum Letter March 09)

HT: Pr Matt Harrison

Luther on Courage and Comfort

Where do you turn in time of anxiety, fear, or uncertainty?  The world tends to turn to their accomplishments, their bank accounts, their talents, their vocations, their friends/family, their government, their (fill in the blank).  At face value, these sorts of things might seem to make sense until we realize that someone can always do some things better than we can, our bank accounts can bottom out in no time, someone else will always be more talented than we are, our jobs can be gone in a flash, our friends/family can forsake us, our governments can fail, and so on.  In a nutshell…there is absolutely nothing, inside or outside of us, we can depend on to ease our anxieties, fears, and uncertainties…not our accomplishments, our bank accounts, our talents, our vocations, our friends/family, our governments…even our faith.  There is nothing, that is, except Christ.  Speaking on John 14, Luther writes as eloquently as ever:

Christians can depend on nothing except Christ, their Lord and God.  For the sake of Christ, they surrender everything and declare, “Before I deny or leave my Christ, I will abandon food and drink, honor and possessions, house and property, spouse and child–everything.”  A Christian’s courage cannot be fake or weak.  It must be genuine and certain.  For Christians cannot encourage themselves with any temporary thing on this earth.  Instead, they cling only to the Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified and died for us.  So Christ will say, as he promises in this passage [Jn 14.16-17], “Because you acknowledge me, you have this advantage and this comfort.  Your courage won’t mislead you, for your Helper is the Spirit of truth.”  All other courage comes from the spirit of lies–a false spirit that cannot please God.  But whatever Christians do, or suffer, for their faith in the Lord Christ is done for the truth.  They have done what is proper and right.  They can boast truthfully and joyfully that what they have done is pleasing to God and the angels.  Christians can feel so confident that they don’t have to fear the devil or the world.  They don’t have to be afraid of any threat or terror.  Let this encourage you, for nothing on earth can comfort you more during times of need than a confident heart.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:119)

The anxiety, fear, and uncertainty of this present day is unlike any faced by many of us before.  While economic downslides, job losses, foreclosures, etc. certainly pale in comparison to the suffering and hardship faced by countless millions around the world every day, for many around the world, these days are grim.  Let us not cling to “any temporary thing on this earth,” for if we do we shall surely find ourselves disappointed.  Let us instead “depend upon nothing except Christ” and realize that in him we truly have nothing to fear.

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“Deadly Trappings” of Evangelicalism

Several months ago, Joe Carter wrote a blog article titled ‘Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism,’ where he describes his concern for “the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at ‘Christian’ bookstores.” As I read his post for the first time this morning, I couldn’t help but finding myself constantly mumbling to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” Why? Because Mr. Carter ‘gets it’ in that, while recognizing many Evangelical fads will quickly pass, much of what has become mainstay fixtures in Evangelical culture have led Evangelicals past the point of irreverence into the land of irrelevance.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, let’s go ahead and look at just a few…using Carter’s numbering:

#1) The Sinner’s Prayer—Carter says, “The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the ‘sinner’s prayer.’” I couldn’t agree more. For a group that is almost completely anti-sacramental, Evangelicals practically treat the sinner’s prayer as an ex opere operato indispensible means of grace, the Evangelical sacrament, that guarantees one’s salvation ‘from the work performed’ (which is what ex opere operato means).

#3) “Do you know Jesus as…” —here Carter writes, “This is one question that needs never be asked” and then goes on to give several reasons why. The funniest and most pointed reason he gives is that in asking this question “you just activated [the hearer's] Fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into ignore mode. Instead of asking about a ‘personal savior’ you might want to simply try to get to know the person.” I would add to this observation that the very phrase “personal Savior” is not only in-house, Evangelical lingo, but it’s poorly chosen lingo. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of a ‘personal Savior.’ Surely there’s an historical context out of which the phrase grew, but for the life of me I can’t see how these words are meaningful to anyone today. (I’d lump “accepting Christ” into this category too, but at least there is biblical precedent for the phrase, even if only in one passage.)

#4) Tribulationism—I hardly feel able to write on this because all the end-times madness within Evangelicalism makes me nauseated. To focus so exclusively on the end-times at the expense of truly significant matters of the Gospel is revolting…plus I’m an amillenialist anyway, so all those pre-trib, pre-mil folks have it wrong anyway (grin).

#5) Testimonies—I’ll never forget that one of the most stressful parts of my seminary application was my “Personal Testimony.” Knowing how much emphasis is placed on this in the denomination affiliated with the school and coming from outside of that tradition, I worried incessantly over writing something that would be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The worst part of personal testimonies, despite their attempts to make the gospel ‘real’ to the unbeliever, is that all-too-often they focus exclusively on ‘me.’  As Carter says, “You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, He already has a pretty good story so why not just tell that one instead?” Touché, Mr. Carter.  Touché

#6) The altar call—I never understood why Baptistic Christians (Evangelicals-at-large) talked so much about altars when they don’t really have altars in their churches, something picked up by other folks as well. For me, this is part of the “Evangelical sacrament” discussed above.

#8) Protestant prayers—With respect to prayers, Carter writes:

First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word “just” (as in “We just want to thank you Lord…”) so [the Lord's prayer] had an odd ring to it. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be- with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before toppping it all with an Amen. Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous–from the heart, off the top of the head–emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?

I surely can’t articulate the current sad state of the predominance of our public prayers any better than that.

Mr. Carter sums up his entire post, an entire series of posts in fact, by saying, “We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.” How right he is! We don’t need all the silly, irreverent, stupid ‘stuff’ that not only comes and goes in fads but that has become so much of the permanent Evangelical identity—all of which, I’m afraid, has led to our irrelevance, mockery, and slander…not because of our faithfulness to Christ, which would be noble, but because of our own loss of the essence of the Gospel.

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The Essence of Salvation by Faith Alone

The Holy Scriptures undeniably describe faith as the only thing necessary for salvation.  They also teach that good works cannot justify a person before God or contribute in the least toward the attainment of salvation.  The Old Testament says that Abram ‘believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15.6).  Habakkuk testifies that ‘the righteous shall life by his faith’ (2.4), and Jeremiah cries, ‘Lord, aren’t You looking for loyalty?’ (5.3).

This doctrine stands in even stronger light in the books of the New Testament.  They remind us that faith, not works, is the way to salvation and blessedness.  Whenever a person sought help from Christ, we read that Christ looked only for faith. ‘All things are possible for one who believes’ (Mk 9.23),  Jesus told the father who needed help for his son and had failed to find it in the disciples.  To another father who had lost all hope for help with the report that his daughter was already dead, Jesus said, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well’ (Lk 8.50).  When another suffering father directed his petition to Him, after seeking help from the disciples in vain, Jesus replied, ‘Let it be done for you as you have believed’ (Mt 8.13).  This was His usual answer to those who sought His help.  Therefore, the apostles’ Epistles speak in this manner: ‘And to the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness’ (Rom 4.5); ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apoart from works of the law’ (Rom 3.28); and ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Eph 2.8-9).  There is still more.  In John’s Gospel, we are told that the Jews once asked Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus replied by pointing to faith: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ (6.28-29).

Many are ashamed to seek salvation through faith in Christ, the Savior of the sinner, and instead they build their hope for eternity on their upright life.  They carelessly regard themselves as good, without having examined their heart, their thoughts, their words, and their works.  Even if a man lives uprightly, he will daily perceive how his conscience accuses him and declares him guilty.  If a person examines himself according to the Law of God revealed in the Holy Scriptures, he will see countless flaws and weaknesses.  If he fails to find them, he must be completely blind, wantonly closing the eyes of his soul to the mirror God hold before us.

Although our sin causes us to forfeit our claim to a blessed eternity, God once again opened to us the possibility of salvation through the offer of faith.  If He had not revealed this to us, all who had come to knowledge of their sinfulness would have had to live in despair and doubt.

May no one think that this doctrine is too holy for those who are weighed down by the knowledge of their sin.  However, it is dangerous to those who are happy in the midst of their sin.  Although love and good works save no one, both are still necessary as evidences that a person is truly standing in the saving faith.  Faith and love are related and inseparably connected like a father and his child.  Whoever says he is justified through faith before God must prove himself by his love before man.  Otherwise he is a liar, for faith works through love.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp 235-6)

(Note:  I don’t normally just copy and post something in toto without any commentary or thoughts of my own, but piece surely stands on its own and needs nothing from me!)

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Still More Luther on Prayer

Luther and Lutherans aren’t exactly known for being bold or fervent prayer warriors, which is unfortunate.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  We are scorned by many Evangelicals for our prepared collects and carefully crafted prayers…though clearly the Holy Spirit is more glorified by extemporaneous prayers, right?  Sarcasm aside, Luther was a bold warrior in prayer, and he has much to teach us if we will only listen.  It is well known that he wrestled constantly against the Devil, but he was one also to wrestle with God in prayer…boldly.  As he says:

We should pray with confidence, knowing that God will answer our requests without delay.  It’s impossible for sincere, persistent prayer to remain unheard.  But because we don’t believe, we aren’t persistent enough and don’t experience God’s goodness and help.  So we must become more enthusiastic about faith and prayer, knowing that God is pleased when we persevere.  In fact, God ordered us to be persistent in prayer:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7.7).

Our prayers are answered much differently–actually, more generously–than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph 3.20).  Paul says, “In the same way…” (Rom 8.26-27).

We always ask for less than we should and don’t even think God is willing to give us what we ask for.  We don’t ask the right way.  We don’t understand that what we pray about is more important than we can comprehend.  We think small, but the Lord is great and powerful.  He expects us to ask for great things.  He wants to give them to us to demonstrate his almighty power.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 6:158)

Let our own prayers be emboldened, and “let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most!” (Heb 4.16 NLT).

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Luther on Faith and Works

Lutherans are often accused from without of being antinomian, in the pejorative sense, and teaching (formally or at least in practice) that God establishes no moral norms on the Christian believer.  This unfortunate reality is nothing more than the result of poor doctrinal instruction mingled with our uncanny sinful ability to rationalize sin.  Such a bastardized notion of “Christian freedom” may well be evident to some degree in American Lutheranism, but neither Scripture nor Martin Luther will have anything to do with it.

Luther properly understood and wonderfully articulated the distinction and close connection of faith and works.  Perhaps his most famous explanation comes from the opening pages of his work, “Concerning Christian Liberty,” where he writes, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”  This pithy maxim holds in proper tension the freedom we have from works as a means of justification and the obligation we have to serve our neighbors by our works.  Luther brings out the practical difficulty of teaching these truths in preaching and teaching when he writes on John 15:

Jesus is saying, “You are in me and remain in my, so make sure you keep my commandments.  For I must give each of you a task as a sign to others that you are my true branches.  That task is to love each other.  I keep this command myself so that I can be an example and model to you.  And I remain in my Father’s love because I keep this command.  Therefore, if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”  Earlier in this book, Christ also says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13.35).

So there are two parts of Christian teaching that we must emphasize daily.  Neither faith nor works can be ignored.  For when faith isn’t preached–when no one explains how we are joined to Christ and become branches in him–then everyone resorts to their own works.  On the other hand, when we teach only about faith, this lopsidedness leads to false Christians.  These people praise faith, are baptized, and even call themselves Christians, but they don’t show any fruit or power.

That’s why it’s so difficult to preach.  No matter how I preach, something goes wrong.  Someone always goes off on a tangent.  If I don’t preach about faith, the result will be useless and hypocritical works.  If I only emphasize faith, no one does any good works.  The result is either useless, faithless do-gooders or believers who don’t do any good works.  So we must preach the message to those who accept both faith and works.  We must preach to those who want to remain in the vine, put their trust in Christ, and put their faith into action in their everyday lives.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 24:249)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, by God’s grace, let us hold fast to our unwavering faith in Christ and let us put our faith into action as we live out our lives each day.  Soli Deo gloria.

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